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World Economic Forum Opens in Egypt


A special meeting of the World Economic Forum has started in the Egyptian resort of Sharm El-Sheikh, but weeks of political unrest and the arrests of hundreds of reform activists threatens to overshadow the event.

In his opening address, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak only vaguely touched on the political upheavals that have rocked his country over the last few weeks, portraying Egypt as a nation on the road to economic and political reform. He defended the slow pace of change.

He says his vision of reform is based on a gradual, prudent approach that ensures its sustainability rather than, in his words, unduly hastening its course, thus leading to chaos and the death of the process itself.

Egypt's hosting of the World Economic Forum has been partly overshadowed by a major crackdown on dissent that preceded it. Over the last month, police have repeatedly attacked and beaten peaceful demonstrators, who took to the streets to support two pro-reform judges. Hundreds of activists remain in prison.

The group Human Rights Watch has urged business leaders at the World Economic Forum to make it clear to Mr. Mubarak that suppression of dissent will alienate investors as well as activists.

In one of the working sessions, the president's son, Gamal Mubarak, denied that the arrests and the recent renewal of a controversial emergency law represent a backslide on political reforms.

"The notion that the political reform process in Egypt is either slowing down or backtracking, I think, is dead wrong.... I think, what is going on in Egypt today, the vibrancy of the political scene, the disagreements on certain important issues, is a very clear sign of things moving forward, and not things moving backwards."

Gamal Mubarak is widely seen as a likely successor to his aging father. He has repeatedly denied that he has aspirations for the presidency, but he has been assuming an increasingly prominent leadership role within the ruling party.

One aspect of the discussion at the meeting hinges on whether political reforms in the Middle East are keeping pace with economic ones - and how much economic development can happen in the absence of meaningful political change.

Former Jordanian planning minister Bassem Awadallah is now a senior advisor to King Abdullah of Jordan, and his assessment was blunt. "I think, we need to be very honest with ourselves, and say that there is a loss of confidence in the relationship between the governed and the governments across the Arab world. This is a serious issue. Governments are not credible."

But the bulk of the talk will be of economic growth and diversification of the regional economies.

Iraqi-born investment banker Nemir Kirdar, chief executive of Investcorp, is one of the meeting's co-chairs. "We have young people that need jobs, that we have got to expand our economies [for]. And, if we look at our economies in the last 50 years, it was government-driven. In the future, if we want to build greater economies to be able to absorb all these young people, we have got to have private sector, to step up and do more."

Diplomacy is happening on the sidelines. On Sunday morning, Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas will meet for the first time with the new Israeli foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, and with Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres. It will be the highest-level meeting between the two sides since the election victory by Hamas earlier this year.

Mr. Abbas says, "I will reiterate to them that the only term of reference for both us is the (international) Roadmap (for peace). I will reiterate again that our hands are extended for peace."

Security is tight for the World Economic Forum special meeting, with traffic around the conference center restricted and a three-day ban on watersports in force off the coast of the resort town, which was the site of one of a series of terrorist attacks along Egypt's coast over the past couple of years.

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