SHARM EL SHEIKH (AP) â€” Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak opened the World Economic Forum on Saturday with a series of indirect but pointed jabs at the United States, warning also that the world must overcome the widening gap between rich and poor, and block escalating threats of terrorism.
With US-Egyptian relations as strained as they have been at any time in Mubarak’s 25-year rule, the 78-year-old Egyptian leader implicitly accused the US of double standards on nuclear policy â€” Washington’s resolute silence on the nuclear arsenal Israel is believed to possess while it leads a drive to deprive Iran of a nuclear programme.
He further challenged Washington to work towards a world “that fosters multilateralism, abides by international legitimacy and steers away from unilateral actions” in a clear reference to his and other Arab leaders’ distaste for the American invasion of Iraq.
In a speech opening the World Economic Forum in this south Sinai resort, the Egyptian leader also hammered on the need for more equal economic and trade treatment for developing countries which he said have been forced to take on “significant burdens” to the advantage of the major economic powers.
Mubarak also said democratic reforms in the Middle East should “emanate from within the region,” a rejection of US attempts to promote Western-style democracy throughout the region. Mubarak and other Arab leaders view the US policy as interference in their internal affairs.
Mubarak, whose nation is the United States’ closest ally in the Arab world and the first to sign a peace treaty with Israel, vowed to work ceaselessly for a broader peace in the Middle East.
“We shall never relax our efforts with either the Palestinians or Israelis in pushing them back towards the path of negotiations,” Mubarak told the 1,300 assembled delegates to the first WEF to be held in Egypt.
“We will continue to push the peace process on all its tracks, in order to reach a peace which is just, lasting and comprehensive â€” one that brings to an end the Arab-Israeli conflict forever.”
Mubarak made no direct reference, however, to the political and terrorist turmoil that have shaken his regime over the past few years, including deadly bombings at Sinai resorts, including one last summer here at Sharm El Sheikh that killed 64 people.
Mubarak referred only obliquely to recent violence in the streets of Cairo where his security forces beat pro-democracy demonstrators twice in the past two weeks.
The United States issued open criticism of Mubarak’s handling of the protests.
Instead, he said, he was confident his government was “on the right path” in its reform efforts, but he cautioned that the process should be gradual and prudent to avoid “chaos and setbacks.” “I know that the road will not be blanketed with flowers in front of us, and I understand that we will be faced with challenges and difficulties. But I am fully confident that we are able to achieve this vision,” he said of his promised reforms, which the United States and many Egyptians have viewed as empty promises.
Earlier Saturday, Mubarak’s prime minister, Ahmed Nazif, shrugged off international criticism over the police violence, saying Cairo was on an unshakable path towards reform.
“We are committed to reform… the government is not scared. We will continue to explain ourselves and face the facts. There is a process taking place. It will continue.
â€œThere is no going back,” Nazif said.
The WEF is taking place as well under the shadow of terrorist attacks that have killed at least 119 people since October 2004.
The most recent attack was just a month ago, a few miles up the Red Sea coast at the scuba-diving centre of Dahab, where 21 died in a triple bombing. Many of the dead in the attacks have been tourists, spending money that supports one of Egypt’s most important industries. Tourism earned the country $6.4 billion in 2005.
All the attacks were claimed by a group calling itself “Monotheism and Holy War,” which is believed to be linked to or inspired by Al Qaeda. Egyptian authorities have been at pains to claim the attacks were the work of local bedouin tribesmen, apparently fearing the spectre of Al Qaeda would frighten tourists away.
Security was overwhelming in the city and around the conference centre as delegates from around the world assembled for the three-day meeting, the first conference of its kind in this resort city, known for its splendid beaches and vibrant coral reefs.
In a sign of how tense security officials have become, central security officers and agents on Friday arrested three Associated Press journalists with badges permitting them to cover the forum after one photographed workers raising flags near the convention centre.
Klaus Schwab, World Economic Forum founder and executive chairman, said that since last year’s WEF Mideast meeting in Jordan, the region has seen some dramatic changes, “but we want to concentrate on the positive developments and I think strong winds of hope are blowing in this region.” The fact that the conference was being held only a month after the Dahab attacks was “a great demonstration of the confidence of the international community has in this region in the long-term and particularly into Egypt,” Schwab said.