Sharm el-Sheik hosts tourists, world leaders

Arab dignitaries met at Egypt's 'Red Sea Riviera' for the World Economic Forum. Outside, security was tight.

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Along the road to Sharm el-Sheik, a colorful mosaic stands next to a barren highway, celebrating the peacemakers who signed the Camp David Accords in the 1970s. Past that, the highway – the "Peace Road" – becomes choked with taxis and is lined by sprawling American and European resort complexes.

As the anchor of Egypt's "Red Sea Riviera," Sharm is now one part Bedouin and two parts spring break.

The boardwalks are full of sunburned British and Russian tourists in tiny swimsuits and bulging fanny packs. Young Egyptian men dressed in full oriental regalia tout sushi restaurants, 24-hour casinos, and bars with belly dancers. The city's sidewalk salesmen are mostly poor migrants from the crowded cities of the Nile Valley who come to Sharm for better pay. And their lives are far removed from the luxury of the World Economic Forum (WEF).

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This week, Sharm played host to the WEF of the Middle East. Dignitaries rubbed shoulders and traded business cards inside a plush conference center surrounded by uniformed soldiers, secret police, and machine guns mounted on rickety tripods.

Former Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi wandered the halls alone with a small plate full of cookies and cake. Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai made an occasional appearance in the main hall, surrounded by body guards and wearing a striped green cape.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who has ruled Egypt with an iron fist since 1981, never mingled with the attendees. His wife sat in the front row at most high-profile events, smiling for the cameras, while their son, Gamal, spoke about reform and posed for photographers with his wife.

President Bush flew to Sharm at the end of a five-day regional trip and held a flurry of meetings with leaders from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Palestinian Authority inside President Mubarak's seaside palace.

Bush hoped to use his time in Sharm to address an uproar in the Arab world over his visit to Israel on the occasion of its 60th anniversary. In a speech to the Israeli Knesset, he referred to the Jewish state as the "homeland of the chosen people" and mentioned the Palestinians only once.

The May 15 Knesset speech gave new power to dangerous twin notions that have taken hold in the Arab world. To many at the WEF, Mr. Bush appeared unable to act as an honest broker of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Even if he could, many think, he has run out of time.

Bush was playing to a tough audience on Sunday when he took the stage at the opening ceremony to deliver the keynote address.

A row of robed Gulf businessmen stood up and walked out before he even began.

While Bush pledged his commitment to the creation of a Palestinian state, he used the bulk of his speech to press the assembled Arab dignitaries for political and economic reforms. "I call on all nations in this region to release their prisoners of conscience, open up their political debate, and trust their people to chart their future."

The tone of the speech was reminiscent of Bush's passionate push for Middle Eastern democracy in 2003 that had Arab activists holding their breath and put Arab leaders on edge. His words were decidedly unwelcome at a conference designed as a celebratory meet-and-greet for rich and powerful Arab businessmen.

Reactions included outrage, hostility, and general discomfort, as if the president had committed a social faux pas.

"There are people who are really pushing for a clash of civilizations in this world, and I think they are on the verge of succeeding," said Ahmed Aboul Gheit, the foreign minister of Egypt.

"I think ... we all heard the kinds of misperceptions that exist between those two worlds," he said after the forum.

Later, he called Bush's speech "a lecture."

Outside the conference rooms, where Bush had addressed Middle Eastern leaders and policymakers on the need to embrace freedom, the Arab world's menacing security apparatus was in full view.

"Everything here is run by a government mafia," says Ashraf, a taxi driver from the Nile valley who has worked here for 19 years. "And Sharm el-Sheik is full of police."

Driving down the road, he points to the beefy plainclothes security officers who stand 15 feet apart as far as the eye can see: from the tourist strip at Naama Bay to the peacemakers mosaic on the road out of town.

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