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The Sharm El-Sheikh factor
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 16 - 09 - 2010

On site, Dina Ezzat traces the long link between the Red Sea resort and the peace process
Residents of the sun-bathing destination of Sharm El-Sheikh seem to know how to handle a temporary road block prompted by the motorcade of a senior Egyptian or foreign official as they pass through the main roads of the city that should otherwise allow tourists and tourism- dependent residents to move from the airport to the many five- and four-star hotels and eventually to Neama Bay, the dining and shisha smoking hub of the city.
"Everything comes to a close when these motorcades pass by but it usually does not last long. Even if it is the motorcade of the president it's just a few minutes," said Amr, a taxi driver at Sharm El-Sheikh as he waited yesterday for the super speedy motorcade of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to cut through the road leading to the airport as he was leaving the city after a seven-hour visit that included talks with President Hosni Mubarak, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
A few minutes later Amr, who came all the way from the Delta of Egypt, had to stop again for another 10 minutes. This time it was the motorcade of Abbas.
"Here we are used to this. This city is the place where the president holds lots of meetings. It is also the place where he usually hosts meetings with Palestinians and Israelis," Amr stated as a matter of fact.
For Amr and taxi drivers like him, Mubarak's political activities are not all about the occasional traffic re-routing and roadblocks or the extra security checks. "We also get work out of this. All these journalists who come here, they too need to move from one point to the other and they need to go to their hotels or to the airport."
Much commuting was certainly being made throughout yesterday as Sharm El-Sheikh hosted a sequence of meetings, taking place in different parts of the city, to help accelerate a weak relaunch of the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks that was staged earlier this month in Washington.
The beginning was a sequence of meetings held by President Mubarak with the top visiting delegations: Abbas, Netanyahu and Clinton. Then each departed from the presidential meeting point back to their hotels where they held meetings with their aides. Then it was time for a sequence of meetings held by Clinton with Abbas and then Netanyahu. The three went back for a new round of talks and a lunch with President Mubarak after which they went back for another three-way meeting before their consecutive departure to Jerusalem for another round of talks.
The convocation of further peace meetings in Sharm El-Sheikh in the near future is not exactly being considered at this point as Abbas and Netanyahu as well as their aides should be meeting in Jerusalem -- with or without US participation.
But, eventually, the Palestinian and Israeli leaders would have to return to Egypt as their talks go through rough moments, to solicit the intervention of President Mubarak as they have done for the past 15 years since the launch of the Palestinian-Israeli talks in the wake of the Oslo process.
"They come, they go and we get lots of publicity for Sharm El-Sheikh on world TVs," said Iman at the Public Relations Department of one of the five-star hotels of the Red Sea resort.
Iman has seen the change of times and faces of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. In her first year she remembers seeing Israeli President Shimon Peres and former Palestinian president Yasser Arafat around the mid-1990s. She also remembers seeing former US secretary of state Madeline Albright, claiming she was more pleasant towards people who approached her than Condoleezza Rice, a subsequent former US secretary of state. "Hillary Clinton smiles and waves to people," added Iman.
Iman was on holiday with her family in Cairo when George Bush, the former US president, was in Sharm. And she does not regret it. She is however keen to be on duty when US President Barack Obama comes to town. "Next time I really hope he comes to Sharm. I would really like to see him. We are all impressed by him and it would be nice to see him in person," she added.
At this point there are no planned visits by Obama to Egypt or for that matter to the region. The US president is busy with his mid-term congressional elections and American and Arab peace process diplomats say he is unlikely to get more involved personally with the peace talks before some concrete results are produced, hopefully in the next few months.
None of the many delegates who roamed around Sharm El-Sheikh yesterday were anywhere near talking about the quality of considerable progress that would make the presence of Obama in the region likely.
Realisation of the difficult situation that the peace talks are in was not denied by anyone yesterday in Sharm El-Sheikh, including Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit and US Middle East envoy George Mitchell, both of whom declined to use the word "optimism" or any of its synonyms in the two press conferences they accorded.
For their part, Iman, in her early 40s and Amr in his mid-20s are unsure as to what these meetings produce beyond the extra work that they bring to the Sharm El-Sheikh tourist industry.


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