A wedding and two conferences at Sharm el-Sheikh


Cairo : While many of the delegates at a two-day Iraq conference in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh this week will prepare to leave after it ends Friday, a chosen few might stay over for a majestic reception the same day.

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The reception, to be held at the presidential villa in Sharm el-Sheikh, is to celebrate two occasions: the 79th birthday of Egypt’s President Hosny Mubarak and the marriage of his eldest son Gamal, rumoured as being groomed to succeed his father.

The 43-year-old Gamal Mubarak was officially married Saturday in Cairo to Khadija al-Gammal, a striking blonde 20 years his junior. The couple, however, decided to postpone their wedding party until the president’s birthday Friday, and to hold it in Sharm, as the place is commonly known, also pronounced as “charm”.

Charming Sharm, on the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula, has come a long way since April 25, 1982 when the Israelis evacuated southern Sinai after 15 years of military occupation, following the defeat of the Egyptian army in the June 1967 War.

In the summer of 1982 hotels in southern Sinai could be counted on the fingers of one hand, a far cry from today’s over 35,000 hotel rooms, catering for all, from backpacker hippie divers to families in search of a dream holiday in resorts like the Ritz-Carlton and Four Seasons.

During the 1980s and 90s Egypt offered lucrative incentives for anyone caring to invest on the Sharm coastline. The result, according to a travel feature in the Observer, was “a bizarre holiday resort in the middle of nowhere, with international and American franchise and management-contract big brands stamped on fantastical hotels”.

Not far – though far enough – from the Orlando-like themed hotels there lies an area of stately villas with manicured lawns and golf courses owned by major investors and their rich and famous guests.

Tony Blair and his family spend part of their Christmas holidays there. And Hosny Mubarak spends a great deal of time there in the presidential villa where Friday’s party will take place. Indeed, many Egyptians believe that Sharm is Mubarak’s escape from the “other Egypt” with its many chronic problems.

“Our president lives in a world of fantasy at Sharm el-Sheikh,” senior Egyptian political analyst M.H. Heikal told Britain’s Independent. “It’s been 25 years he’s been president and he still can’t take the burdens of state.”

Granted Sharm el-Sheikh bears very little relation to the Egypt of rural hovels and urban shanty towns, but it is a major source of income for the ailing Egyptian economy, which depends heavily on a tourism industry worth almost $7 billion a year, of which Sharm alone is said to provide more than 30 percent.

As for “the burdens of state” – or at least the foreign policy part of them – Mubarak receives foreign heads of state and convenes top-level political meetings in Sharm. The prime consideration behind this is security, with the overpopulated and under-serviced Cairo perceived as a high security risk.

And if there is one thing the Egyptian regime has learned the hard way it is security. The former Egyptian president Anwar el-Sadat was assassinated in 1981 in Cairo – surrounded by his army chiefs and security men – during a parade commemorating the Egyptian military victory on October 6, 1973.

“I thought that because he (Mubarak) had been beside Sadat when he was assassinated, he would have appreciated something,” Heikal said. “But more than anything else, it taught him ‘security.'”

Sharm has long been considered the tightest security zone in Egypt. It has been at Sharm for a decade now that all US-sponsored Arab-Israeli summits have been held. Former US president Bill Clinton presided over two peace conferences in Sharm in 1996 and again in 2000.

And US President George W. Bush came to Sharm in June 2003, weeks after he had announced “mission accomplished” in Iraq to try his hand at Middle East peace.

However, then terrorism struck Sharm for the first time in 2005, with three coordinated bombings taking place at the height of the summer tourist season, killing some 80 people and leaving over 200 injured.

Nearly 10 months earlier, two attacks near Taba on the eastern coast of the Sinai Peninsula had taken place, killing 34 people.

When a third incident of multiple coordinated bombings occurred in April 2006, it became clear that all was not quite on the Sinai front.