Sharm El Sheikh Journal, Part II


Welcome to the second installment of these notes from “Sharm,” as they call it–from the World Economic Forum’s conference on the Middle East. The WEF–the Davos gang–comes to the Middle East each spring. They hold other “regional” conferences too (as distinct from the big Annual Meeting in the Alps, in January), but the Middle Eastern one is the biggest. Twelve hundred people are here, to discuss the future of what many consider the make-or-break region of the world. 

The first installment of this journal appeared yesterday, and may be found here. And where was I?

The conference opens, officially, with an address by Hosni Mubarak, our host (nominally). When he walks into Plenary Hall, everyone–almost everyone–stands, silently. It’s a bit creepy, somehow, to me.


In yesterday’s notes, I said something about Mubarak’s photo at the Egyptian consulate in New York: in which he is young, sort of slim, and black-haired. Although nearly 80, he is still black-haired (naturally or not!) and gives the impression of great vigor. He looks in far better shape than, say, Fidel Castro. He could go on and on.


And, although this is not his fault–he looks rather like a thug. Unkind to say, but true. It’s his fault only if he acts like a thug.


And his speech? It’s full of platitudes, banalities, and little jabs at the United States. In other words, SOS (if you know that expression–it doesn’t stand, in this instance, for “Save Our Ship”). But I sit up a little at some poetry at the end:


Welcome once again to Egypt, the birthplace of monotheism and civilization, the land upon which converged the ancient civilizations of the pharaohs, Mesopotamia, Greece, and Rome–a bridge between continents, between peoples and cultures.


Here in Sinai, one can still discern the echoes of the Book of Exodus and the Koran. Here lies the sacred valley, and the burning bush atop Mount Sinai.


Upon this land, heaven and earth converged. Moses spoke to God, and received the Ten Commandments. Across this land traveled the Virgin Mary and Jesus, fleeing tyranny as they sought the shelter and safety of Egypt.


Etc. Kind of nice, Hosni.


The real star of this show is Ahmed Nazif, the prime minister of Egypt. You may remember my writing about him from Davos, last January. When he talks, he hardly seems a government official, much less prime minister: He seems a dissident, an oppositionist–a real liberal democrat. He might as well be a chair-holder at AEI, the way he talks.


And, it is true, the way he acts. Nazif is both the symbol and the driver of Egypt’s reform. Acknowledged as a major brain, he holds a Ph.D. in “computer vision” from McGill. He’s big on artificial intelligence–that sort of thing. And he is presiding over what everyone sees as Egypt’s economic opening: Tariffs, taxes, regulations, and other barriers are falling. Foreign investment is pouring in, and the economy is growing at 6 percent.


Nazif boasts of all this, and you can’t blame him. As we say in America–was it Casey, Yogi, or someone else?–“It’s not bragging if it’s true.”


The prime minister meets with some journalists over breakfast. He says that there is “no turning back” for Egypt–politically, economically, or socially. Reform has begun, and, though it will take time, it is unstoppable. “Some people are scared,” says Nazif. “I’m not.” And “we have time–we’re not in a hurry.” Egypt is an old and important country, and it will not be transformed over night; but it will be; and transformation is visible even now.


Nazif talks at length about last year’s presidential election, pronouncing it a success. It was a clean, First World operation, he says. And Egypt had never experienced anything like that before.


Yet the democrat Ayman Nour is in jail.


And how about those two judges, who were rounded on when they pointed out electoral fraud? Nazif insists that the law has taken its proper course in that case. “The president [Mubarak] could have interfered, but he didn’t–we stuck to the law.”


In a later interview–one on one–I will ask Nazif about Nour, the judges, the plight of Sudanese refugees, and so on. That interview will be imbedded in a piece published in the next National Review.


But back to our breakfast. Like many officials and politicians, Nazif complains about the world media: They portray Egypt as a glass half empty, he says. And his government, and Egyptian society, are busy “filling in the other half.” Why can’t the media acknowledge this, instead of harping on failings?


The country is no longer “a closed environment,” Nazif says. It is no longer “a one-way street.” A more democratic rough-and-tumble is taking place, and “we’re not used to it.” But it is ever more normal. Have a little patience, and a little perspective, his message to the media seems to be.


A reporter asks about presidential succession: Will Gamal Mubarak succeed his father? Nazif bristles a bit at this, insisting, “We are an institutional country,” instead of a banana–or a fig-and-date–republic. Established institutional processes will take care of this. Nazif’s implication, if I may interpret, is: If Gamal becomes president, it will be in the manner of Bushes, Kennedys, Roosevelts, Tafts, Harrisons, Adamses . . . not in the manner of the Syrian Assads.


Nazif may not be a genuine Arab reformer–but if he isn’t, no one is. No one currently in government, anywhere, is. And what can outsiders do except root for these people? I think of that movie title, which quickly entered our language: “As Good As It Gets.” In all probability, Ahmed Nazif is as good as it gets in the Arab world. And we will stay tuned . . .


At night, a naturalist would be alarmed at Sharm El Sheikh. The shoreline is ringed with lights. Very unnatural, indeed. But I confess to rather liking it.


But later, we have sky lights, or whatever they’re called–those oscillating shafts that draw attention to something important (like the opening of a golf range). Even I–who am not the purest environmentalist, as you know–gag at that.


On the subject of the Red Sea: It’s really a salty mother. What I mean is, I dive in and swim with my eyes tightly closed–very tightly closed. And still my eyes burn. Salinity City, as Bush the Elder might say.


One afternoon, on a shuttle bus from hotel to conference center, a tape (or CD) of the Koran plays. Religion is everywhere apparent, even in the relatively loose environment of Sharm El Sheikh–a beach environment, after all! On another afternoon, I enter the small bank in my hotel. The clerks have their foreheads to the floor, praying. I quietly exit.


On the hotel’s beach, there are some nude bathers. I mean some Western women, sunning themselves. I wonder what the employees–young Arab men–think of this: whether they are fascinated, outraged, or both (or neither). I should stress that the nudity is of the topless variety, only. Although, given the size of some rumps and thighs, coupled with the size of some swimming-suit bottoms, you never know.


You have met the PM of Egypt–how about the PM of Pakistan, Shaukat Aziz? He is a smooth, smooth performer, once a top exec with Citibank. Like Nazif, his counterpart in Egypt, he meets with some of us journos. And as you observe him in action, you understand why he rose so high, in finance and politics. A smooth operator–refined, elegant, canny, informed, slightly cool–indeed.


He discusses Iran at some length. Pakistan is a warm ally of Iran–even a partner, you might say–and Aziz makes no apologies for this. In fact, he expresses the hope that Pakistan will “expand” its relations with the mullahs.


At the moment, these parties are working on a pipeline deal, for “gas is what we need to fuel our growth,” says Aziz.


About Iran’s nuclear program, the PM says two things (repeatedly): Pakistan is opposed to Iran’s acquiring an A-bomb; and Pakistan is opposed–absolutely opposed–to any use of force to stop such acquisition.


Well, what if that stance is untenable? What if you can’t prevent Iran from acquiring an A-bomb without the use of force? What is Pakistan’s preference: that the mullahs go nuclear or that force be used against them?


That question is unaddressed.


I ask how the fight against al Qaeda is going. Aziz does not care to talk about al Qaeda in particular, but about terrorism in general. He says that governments have to fight terrorism–but then delivers a sermon on “root causes.”


So he is a root-cause man, the prime minister. I used to be big on root causes, too–back when I was in college, I’d say. But then the realization set in: Lots of people have grievances, including very severe and justifiable grievances. And they don’t commit terror. They don’t go on mass-murder sprees, or behead.


Besides which, a lot of these Islamist terrorists are downright wealthy.


Anyway . . .


Aziz never answers my question about how the fight against al Qaeda is going. My impression is, fairly well. But the PM of Pakistan would know a lot better.


Later, Aziz is pressed on Israel: What does he think of the Iranian president’s vow–and Aziz has met repeatedly with Ahmadinejad–to destroy Israel? The prime minister will say only that he thinks every nation has the right to exist, and in peace.


Which is something.


These matters aside, Shaukat Aziz, like Ahmed Nazif, seems the very model of the Muslim-world reformer (and I will have more to say about him later in this journal). Over his coffee, at the session I’ve been discussing, he recites the following string of words: “liberalization, deregulation, privatization, transparency, improvement in governance.” This is sweet, sweet music. And it’s what you could call the World Economic Forum’s theme song.


And I’ll be back tomorrow, friends, with Part III.