Sharm El Sheikh Journal, Part IV


A final installment, of reports and observations from the World Economic Forum, here on the Sinai Peninsula. How does the Sinai compare with Davos, the Alpine village in which the Annual Meeting is held? Oh, you know: One is low, one is high; both are beautiful. I could go on.


For Part I, of this journal, please go here. For Part II, here. And for Part III, here.


What was I saying? Oh, yeah: The deputy secretary of state, Robert Zoellick, is here, and he meets with a group of journalists–many of them crabby and feisty. They tend to get that way, when an American official is in their sights. (They are infinitely more respectful with others, in my experience.)


Zoellick is as he usually is: professorial, informed, expansive. The eyebrows fly. He says that he senses that the old order is breaking down in the Middle East–he had the same kind of feeling in the last years of the Cold War. Not that the two situations are the same. He provides a nice paraphrase of Mark Twain: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but sometimes it rhymes.”

He can see that the region’s political systems are “under stress.” People are changing, rapidly or slowly. The Gulf states “are trying to be little Singapores.” (Come to think of it, Singapore is a little Singapore.) Zoellick has just been in Tunisia, and they are shaking things up there, too. Everyone wants to get into the act.


Zoellick makes a point about political Islam, which I’ve heard from others as well. Many people are joining Islamist groups because they’re true believers, of course: They want darkest theocratic rule. But others have joined merely because they want to express their opposition–their opposition to the existing order. So it was with the Communists, says Zoellick: Many were true believers, natch; but others joined them because the Communists were seen as outsiders, dissenters, challengers.

Egypt, Zoellick maintains, is in a “transitional phase.” In addition to the good, the government has made some “mistakes” recently. Like what? Like “beatin’ people up,” for one thing! (That’s exactly how he says it.) And these mistakes are in conflict with the government’s own stated desires, says Zoellick: toward openness, toward liberalization.


An Arab reporter asks a common question here: Why is the U.S. so concerned about the arrest and harassment of Egyptian democrats–such as Ayman Nour–but less concerned, at least publicly, about the arrest and harassment of the Muslim Brotherhood? (Indeed, this reporter contends that the Nour matter has been “taken out of proportion.”) Zoellick dances around this somewhat, saying that the USG supports democratic means across the board.


And my answer? Oh, something like: The “Brothers” are thugs who would snuff out the freedom of all. (But there are more rational, more principled answers, I grant.)


One of Zoellick’s best moments, linguistically, comes when he’s asked about Gamal Mubarak, the president’s son. Gamal is a big deal in the ruling party: the National Democratic Party. Zoellick says that young Mubarak and his allies seem to be trying to “overhaul” the NDP. In this, they are quite unlike “what I’ll politely call the traditional NDP leaders I have met.”


I love that line: “what I will politely call the traditional NDP leaders.”


And those leaders, says Zoellick, have no interest whatsoever in change.


The DepSecState is further asked whether the U.S. is bullying Egypt. No, he says: We are speaking forthrightly to them, and encouraging them along the path they themselves have said they wish to travel. And all that American aid? “In our mutual interest,” says Zoellick. Whether that aid will be cut, in response to recent Egyptian “mistakes,” is up to Congress. And Egyptians will have to talk to Congress. But, as far as the administration is concerned, the aid is beneficial to both giver and recipient.


Zoellick says that we must not overlook the changes that have already occurred in Egypt. Five years ago, citizens would not have demonstrated–it was too dangerous. It’s still dangerous–but not as much.


And look at the changes that have taken place in Kuwait and Bahrain! Who would have predicted those?


Zoellick has little patience for those who contend that democracy is not for the Middle East. He recalls being a teacher in Hong Kong, in 1980. He talked to his Chinese students about democracy, and they said, “Oh, that’s not for us–not for Asians. They have democracy in Japan, in some odd form, but that’s an exception.” And what has occurred in that neck of the woods? There is democracy in Taiwan and South Korea. And, to an extent, democracy in Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines.


“I don’t believe anyone is immune to democracy,” says Zoellick.


He says again that ruling parties in the Middle East must “create space for legitimate opposition,” so that people can express themselves–disagree with the government–without linking arms with the Islamists.


Finally, a word about Darfur: Yes, the U.N. should go in. And “quickly.” He says it again, as though mindful of carnage and other evil: “Quickly.”


Zoellick is an impressive character, and he talks well about the world, and about U.S. policy. The administration should send him out more–to the Sunday talk shows, to the Council on Foreign Relations, etc. He should be a major spokesman.


Then again, I think of a song lyric: “Why should they take advice from you, even if you have read Balzac and Shakespeare and all them other highfalutin Greeks?”


One morning–on the last day–I moderate a panel on new media in the Middle East. The title of this discussion: “The Revolution Will Be Televised.” And new media certainly are making a significant difference. We’re talking about some cable television, yes. But the Internet is increasingly a big factor, and so are cellphones: on which text messages can be sent. Text messages fly around the Middle East–some for vile purposes, some for benign, or salutary.


Young journalists are present at this discussion, and they are encouraging: moderate, enlightened, reform-minded. The best of them have no desire to work for state-run media, and no desire to be bosses in them. They want independence, and a multiplicity of views.


A Palestinian says that, in the territories, taboos are being broken down. For instance, the taboo on talk about sexual harassment. It used to be that no one even whispered about this problem. Now it is open for discussion.


And I’d like to introduce you to It’s run by a young Jordanian, Ahmad Humeid, and it presents an Arab blog network. Free expression abounds on this network. And, to use a phrase I’ve used before in this journal: This is something new under the sun.


Of course, there is always the danger of governmental crackdown. This has already happened in some places. But people–especially in the less stifling states–are feeling bolder all the time.

Someone suggests that there is all too much information on the Internet. Someone else counters, “Too much information! The thought of it, in this region, makes my heart glad.”


It does mine, and I bet yours, too.


Can I tell you what I like best about Prime Minister Erdogan, of Turkey? In his coffee with a few of us, he makes no opening statement. He doesn’t want to–he just wants to start right in with the Q&A.


This is very unusual, among suchlike, my friends.


The first question comes from me: “Some people say that Islam and democracy are incompatible. What do you say?” He answers that his response need not be verbal–he can just point to his country, Turkey. This is a country in which “98 percent of the people happen to be Muslim.” (Those are the words of his translator.) “And we are a democracy, a republic, in which the rule of law, secularism, and the fundamental rights of liberty are held dear.”


He says that, as time goes on, “we are taking greater steps in meeting the requirements of democracy.” Turkey is “in a state of transition,” in which “people are going from local custom to a more scientific approach in their daily lives.”


Like others, Erdogan views Turkey as “a bridge between the Arab world and the West.” And since many eyes are on Turkey–if I have interpreted the prime minister correctly–“we are condemned to success.” A nice phrase, that: “condemned to success.” Turkey cannot afford to fail. It needs to set an example.


Someone asks about the recent murder of a judge. Erdogan responds that “there are people who like to darken spaces a little.” But “we will shine a light on them,” catching them and dealing with them.


A journalist from a prominent Western magazine refers to Erdogan’s party as “Islamist.” This strikes me as terribly wrong; I think he means “Islamic.” And, indeed, when the prime minister answers, he pounces: “We are not an Islamist party.” Moreover, “your magazine made that same mistake” in a recent issue!


Turning to the PA, Erdogan speaks of a “pre-election Hamas” and a “post-election Hamas.” He notes that Arafat, when he emerged, was labeled a terrorist. Yet he became a statesman, a hero, a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.


Yes, but, my dear prime minister, as far as some of us are concerned, he died a terrorist–just the way he began.


“Don’t make the mistakes of the past,” says Erdogan. In other words, don’t freeze out Hamas, as you once did Arafat.


You may not agree with Erdogan’s views, as I don’t (certainly as regards Hamas). But, at a number of WEF events, he has proven himself to be a forthright man, who answers all questions thoughtfully and without fuss.


And who closes the conference? Why, Her Loveliness, the Queen of Jordan. The conference began with Hosni Mubarak, in Plenary Hall. Rania is a damn sight better.


And what do I do, when my formal duties are over? I take a ride out into the desert, on what’s called a quadrunner. There are about five others. Never will I be closer to belonging to a motorcycle gang.


They–the guys at headquarters–put an Arab headdress around me. A black-and-white checked scarf. For all the world, I look like Arafat. And I have on my head–over the headdress–a helmet.


What color is it? Pink. All the helmets are pink.


Just about the manliest thing I’ve ever done, and they put a pink helmet on me. Thanks.

Out in the Sinai desert, as you pass Bedouins and their camels, you can imagine you’re Moses, receiving the Ten Commandments. Or Arik Sharon, chewing up the Egyptian army, back in ’73. Whichever.


And aren’t you nice to have joined me for these adventures!