Politics & Policy

Sharm El Sheikh Journal, Part I

After 9/11, the World Economic Forum — the Davos people — decided to do a conference in, and on, the Middle East. I report to you from the sixth one. Lately, the conference has alternated between Jordan and Egypt. In Jordan, the conference is by the Dead Sea; in Egypt, it is in Sharm El Sheikh, which is in the Sinai peninsula, on the Red Sea.

In the past, I have asked the cutesy question, “Better Dead than Red, or better Red than Dead?” Both settings are pleasant and suitable. Also, I, and others, have referred to the World Economic Forum’s Middle East fest as “Davos in the Desert.” (Davos is the little town in the Swiss Alps where the WEF’s Annual Meeting is held.)

And who is around this year? Some heads of state — for example, Mubarak, our host, and King Abdullah of Jordan, and Valdis Zatlers of Latvia, a wild card. And how about another wild card? President George W. Bush. He has not before done a Davos, whether in Switzerland or here in the Middle East.

The Duke of York is here, too — otherwise known as Prince Andrew, otherwise known as Mr. Fergie (once). Tony Blair is another Brit — he acts in his role as “Middle East Quartet Envoy” of the United Nations.

There are gobs of foreign ministers, including many (most?) from the Middle East. One of them is Israel’s Tzipi Livni. Some say that she will be the next prime minister. Also, Bernard Kouchner of France is here. He is a co-founder of Doctors Without Borders, and one of the most interesting men in politics.

Iraqis are plentiful, including Barham Salih, the deputy prime minister, and Hoshyar Zebari, the foreign minister. Israelis besides Livni include Ehud Barak, now the defense minister, and Benjamin Netanyahu, now chairman of Likud.

Early in the conference, I see Bibi, sort of scowling and looking bad-a**.

Americans besides Bush? There’s Robert Zoellick, who heads the World Bank, and Susan Schwab, the trade representative, and at least two congressmen: Jane Harman (D., Calif.) and Christopher Shays (R., Conn.).

The place is, of course, crawling with business people, including E. Neville Isdell, chairman and CEO of Coke, and Jimmy Wales, founder and “chair emeritus” of Wikia, USA. Pretty cool name, huh? I mean, both “Jimmy Wales” and “Wikia, USA.” And “E. Neville Isdell”’s not too bad either.

Al Arabiya plans an interesting debate, headed “The Gathering Storm of Inflation.” Two of the participants are Bassem Awadallah, the Jordanian king’s brilliant and reformist chief of staff; and Youssuf Boutros-Ghali, finance minister of Egypt. The Boutros-Ghalis keep coming, huh?

Mohamed ElBaradei, the atomic-energy chief and Nobel laureate, is here. If he says a cross word about Iran or North Korea, I’ll fall off my chair. If he says a cross word about the United States or Israel, I may yawn.

Leafing through the list of participants, I take special notice of Jorge Sampaio. Why? His title: High Representative of the Alliance of Civilization, United Nations. How about that? Can it get grander? I also take special notice of Ewa Björling, trade minister of Sweden — because I wonder whether she’s related to the great, late tenor Jussi. He is some people’s favorite singer, all-time, you know.

Egypt’s First Lady, Suzanne Mubarak, will speak. And very much on the scene is her son, Gamal. He is touted to succeed the old man as president — and we could do worse, it must be said.

Virtually all of the panels and forums are devoted to the problems of the Middle East (which is never short of problems) — but there are two oddball sessions. One of them is, “All You Ever Wanted to Know About Relationships, but Were Afraid to Ask.” It is led by a psychologist. And the other is “The Scent of Success,” about perfume.

Just in case you tire of war, peace, and all that jazz (I won’t).

‐Giving the welcoming address is President Mubarak, who, as I keep saying, looks amazingly good for a senior citizen: He just turned 80. He does not look like he will be giving up the reins anytime soon. And I don’t expect he’ll lose reelection.

He begins with words about the Sinai, and its importance in history — not neglecting to mention Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. This is the same thing he said in his opening remarks two years ago. But there’s nothing wrong with such repetition.

He talks about the economic “crisis,” triggered by the “collapse” of U.S. real-estate and financial markets. He talks about the problem of food scarcity. He notes possible conflicts between energy needs and food needs (a true-ringing theme). And he says that the world is “facing the negative effects of climate change.” We will have to come to grips with global warming, he says.

As he speaks, I try to imagine him tossing and turning at night, worrying about global warming. I cannot.

On the subject of reform and democracy, Mubarak says that such things must come from within, not from without. There must be no “imposing.” And he dwells on the Palestinian question, which he suggests is the critical problem. I wonder what Egypt is doing for the Palestinians — especially in Gaza, Egypt’s former holding.

He heaps praise on Mahmoud Abbas, whom he calls “Abu Mazen.” He hails him as a man of courage and vision. I get the impression Mubarak is bucking up the Palestinian leader, against those who call him a weakling and sellout.

And I appreciate something else from Mubarak: He says “Israel” and “Israeli.” Every time an Arab leader uses those words, it’s a victory of sorts — because those words are better than “Jew,” “Zionist entity,” and so on.

When he says, “The future starts from this particular moment,” I think of the line they teased LBJ about: “The future lies before us” (and where else?).

About Hosni Mubarak, I have long had one great question: Is he a dictator, albeit of the “presidential” kind, who has kept Egypt down, and held her back? Or is he a patriot, who has kept the Muslim radicals at bay? Or is he some combination? Moreover, could Egypt have done better, all these years?

‐Sitting together, during Mubarak’s speech, are Awadallah (the Jordanian king’s chief of staff) and Salih (the Iraqi deputy PM). That strikes me as natural: They are two of the greatest liberalizers in the Middle East. (Perhaps it would be better to say “would-be liberalizers.”)

‐And as I look at Mubarak’s entourage, I wonder, “What is really in their heads?” Some weeks ago, I did an item in Impromptus on Abdallah al-Ashal, who was deputy foreign minister of Egypt. He is now a professor of international law and political science at the American University in Cairo. And he was on television talking about how George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon conspired to commit the atrocities of 9/11.

I’m sorry, but I have to wonder: What is in the heads of these elegant-looking elites?

‐Following Mubarak at the podium is King Abdullah of Jordan. He is clean-shaven now, looking rather younger than he did with scruff. He is not looking at a text — he is either reciting a speech from memory or reading from a teleprompter. (It cannot be extemporaneous.) I vote No. 2: teleprompter. But I don’t see that device.

He begins, “When they write the histories, this could be 2008: the birth-year of independent Palestine; an endpoint to a 60-year timeline of conflict; the start of a new global position for the Middle East.”

He says,

Time is now of the essence. [Yeah, when is it not?] It is vital that the year 2008 not end as the year 2000 did: with progress cut off, the sphere of agreement collapsing, and years of expanding violence to come. We need to ask ourselves, how much further ahead would we be today if these last eight years had been years of peace and stability? If, all this time, a sovereign Palestine had been building and thriving?

And so on. That is very well done. The rest of the speech? So-so (to comment in brief).

‐Next at the podium is Bush — and a somewhat funny thing happens to me. I read about the speech before I hear it. On the Internet, I see a report from the Associated Press. It begins, “Israel got glowing praise from President Bush earlier this week. On Sunday, the Arab world got a stern lecture, on the need to spread freedoms and isolate state sponsors of terror that he said are holding the region back.”

(For the rest of the article, go here.)

The White House handed out the speech in advance. The AP’s reporter, or commentator, Jennifer Loven, gives the very clear impression that she didn’t like Bush’s Israel speech very much — and that she didn’t like the speech for Sharm El Sheikh very much either.

That Israel speech of Bush’s, by the way, stuck in a lot of craws. Because the world hates Israel (to dramatize only slightly), the world hated that speech, fiercely.

Speaking of hatred: I imagine that Bush is the world figure the Davos crowd hates most. I say this from the experience of ten conferences (Switzerland and the Middle East). Well, what about Ahmadinejad, Mugabe, and Kim Jong Il? Quite possibly, any of them would be more respectfully received.

Bush has traveling companions, including his wife, the First Lady, and the secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice. When he says her name, he says, “Condoleessa” — an “s” sound instead of a “z” sound. (The Rev. Jeremiah Wright calls her “Condamnesia,” his point being that Rice forgets the history of black Americans. Of course, Wright is a venomous nut.)

The applause that greets Bush when he appears is very, very brief. And that is as much applause as he will get.

I will not try to recapitulate Bush’s speech here, but you can read it on the White House website: here.

He sounds his usual notes about the Middle East, and the world at large. Democracy is the way to go, but different countries have arrived at democracy in their own ways: There is no one-size-fits-all.

There are “God-given rights.” Freedom is not an American idea, or a Western idea, but a universal one.

There are skeptics about democracy in this part of the world. I understand that. But as more people in the Middle East gain firsthand experience from freedom, many of the arguments against democracy are being discredited.”

Bush also says this, about democracy and religion:

There are people who claim that democracy is incompatible with Islam. But the truth is that democracies, by definition, make a place for people of religious belief. America is one of the world’s leading democracies, and we’re also one of the most religious nations in the world. More than three-quarters of our citizens believe in a higher power. Millions worship every week and pray every day. And they do so without fear of reprisal from the state. In our democracy, we would never punish a person for owning a Koran. We would never issue a death sentence to someone for converting to Islam. Democracy does not threaten Islam or any religion. Democracy is the only system of government that guarantees their protection.

Then Bush makes the point that democracy is not majoritarianism:

Some say any state that holds an election is a democracy. But true democracy requires vigorous political parties allowed to engage in free and lively debate. True democracy requires the establishment of civic institutions that ensure an election’s legitimacy and hold leaders accountable. And true democracy requires competitive elections in which opposition candidates are allowed to campaign without fear or intimidation.

And how about the following?

Too often in the Middle East, politics has consisted of one leader in power and the opposition in jail. America is deeply concerned about the plight of political prisoners in this region, as well as democratic activists who are intimidated or repressed, newspapers and civil society organizations that are shut down, and dissidents whose voices whose voices are stifled.

And later, “We must stand with the good and decent people of Iran and Syria, who deserve so much better than the life they have today.”

When Bush speaks this line, I think about Jimmy Carter — who was recently in Syria, and who is universally known as a human-rights man. I never hear Carter talk this way. When he speaks and writes about the Middle East — which is often — he slams Israel. He does not talk about the abuses committed against Arabs or Muslims by Arab or Muslim rulers.

Bush does not deliver his speech in his best fashion. He is faint, for one thing — sort of hard to hear. And he is lackluster, workaday. He is more reading a speech than speaking one, or giving one. He is subdued, and probably tired. Or maybe he thinks this style will convey modesty (it does not, to this assemblage).

His audience is restless, disapproving, somewhat noisy. Some people leave the hall, and others mill about. Around me, people make some harrumphing and snorting remarks. During Mubarak’s and Abdullah’s speeches, you could have heard a pin drop. There is much less respect for the guy who was elected (truly elected) — and, in a way, perhaps that’s as it should be.

Very awkwardly, Bush reads his applause lines — and reads them as though expecting applause — and no applause comes, or very little does. This happens frequently: when he denounces Hamas and Hezbollah; when he says we must stand against al Qaeda. Here is an example: “Bin Laden and his followers have made clear that anyone who does not share their extremist ideology is fit for murder. That means every government in the Middle East is a target of al Qaeda. And America is a target too. And together, we will confront and we will defeat this threat to civilization.”

Zippo, not a peep — highly awkward. Bush just goes on.

He says, “Every peaceful nation in the region has an interest in opposing Iran’s nuclear-weapons ambitions. To allow the world’s leading sponsor of terror to gain the world’s deadliest weapon would be an unforgivable betrayal of future generations. For the sake of peace, the world must not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon.”

If there is applause, there is a smattering, at best. And when Bush finishes his speech? The applause is even briefer than when he appeared.

I remember when Iran’s Khatami appeared in Davos: He was greeted like some combination of Elvis and Gandhi. (He was known as a reformer, to be sure.) There were also representatives of Saddam Hussein’s regime, and the Assad dictatorship. Was the audience as frosty to them as to Bush?

Bush-hatred is one of the most interesting phenomena of our times; to me, it is also one of the most disturbing. Consider Bush’s speech at this conference, and its calls for freedom, democracy, and humaneness. If Bill Clinton gave the identical speech, what would the reaction be? And if Barack Obama gave it, word for word? I can see people on their feet, cheering.

For me, one of the most memorable Davos moments came courtesy of Tony Blair. It was January 2005, just after Bush delivered his Second Inaugural Address. And Blair said to Davos — I paraphrase just slightly — “What’s wrong with us progressives? I thought we were supposed to be all for freedom and against tyranny. Why did we hate that speech so much?”

In all probability, Bush could have said nothing here in Sharm El Sheikh that would have gained approval. Nothing short of a self-denunciation.

And a thought occurs to me: Bush stands for sweeping change in the Middle East. And he was talking to a throng of people for whom life is pretty good. On the whole, they are affluent; a good number of them must have domestic servants. They have positions of power and influence. They travel internationally, including to conferences like this one. They are the “haves,” the societal winners.

And who is Bush’s Middle Eastern constituency? You could argue, they are the poor, the imprisoned, the hopeless. The poor need liberalization more than the rich. And no one in jail attends conferences.

Bush’s speech would have been much better received in, say, Syrian prisons.

‐In the next hours, I hear many reviews of Bush’s performance, and they are not good, to put it mildly. And I will tell you about a conversation I overhear — an American woman is talking to some Middle Easterners in a lounge. I am typing this column.

A man asks the woman, hesitantly, “What did you think of Bush’s speech?” “Oh, I hate Bush,” she says. That is a jarring sentence to hear: “I hate Bush.”

And she goes on. Some of her choice sentences: “Democracy is overrated.” “All of us Americans in the audience, we were like, ‘Do we applaud or what?’” “His approval rating is 18 percent. No one cares about him anymore; everybody hates him.”

She allows that the First Lady, Laura Bush, “seems nice.” But then she drops this: “The rumor is he hits her, you know. Sometimes I see her on television, and I’m thinking, ‘Poor woman.’” Then our American seems to have a prick of conscience: “But I don’t know — maybe they have a great relationship.”

Here is a theme I have sounded many, many times, and will again: The American abroad can be tough to digest. For decades, people have denounced the “ugly American” — the ugly American abroad. They mean conservative ignoramuses or loudmouths or bigots in Hawaiian shirts and shorts. But my idea of the “ugly American” is something else.

Well, that’s Part I, ladies and gentlemen. See you for Part II?

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