Davos Is Silent as Egypt Burns

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It was truly surreal however to watch world leaders sitting on stage to calmly discuss climate change and sustainable development while Egypt was burning.

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DAVOS, Switzerland - There was something fairly surreal going on for most of Friday at the annual meetings of the World Economic Forum here.

As the endgame of the Egyptian uprising seemed about to play out -- with President Hosni Mubarak teetering, the Army taking to the streets as the death toll mounted, the entire internet and mobile phone service being shut down in an unprecedented Armageddon tactic, President Obama offering no solace to Mubarak in televised remarks, and Mubarak eventually dismissing his government -- there was no substantial public discussion or debate inside the Congress Center, where 2,000 delegates were meeting.

I was among many delegates here who sat in on the regular panel discussions on the euro or sustainable development or global trade and paid little attention to the discussion. We were downloading video of the protests in Egypt on our iPads instead.

Reporters literally raced around the crowded building, trying to grab comments from the world leaders in attendance. They did get a few soundbites from the likes of Britain's David Cameron, Germany's Angela Merkel, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and even Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva of Thailand.

There was no substantial public discussion of Egypt inside the Congress Center

CNN presenter Richard Quest and his crew were running so hard that they nearly knocked over me and a senior World Economic Forum official and his wife as they forced us to jump out of their way. They returned a few seconds later with a muttered apology. Not really appropriate Davos-like behavior.

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon warned Egypt's government on Friday that "freedom of expression should be fully respected."

Angela Merkel, whose main appearance here concerned a stern and Germanic lecture on reducing government debt and protecting the euro, did tell reporters that stability in Egypt was important -- but not at the expense of freedom of expression.

Prime Minister Cameron of the UK, the standout performer here on Friday, called for reform in Egypt and said he hoped the violence would stop, but added it was clear that people in Egypt had "grievances and problems."

And Thailand's prime minister called for restraint. He should know, having sent government troops to stage a bloody crackdown to quell street protests in Bangkok last year, resulting in 91 deaths.

It was truly surreal however to watch Ban Ki-moon, Bill Gates, and world leaders sitting on stage to calmly discuss climate change and sustainable development while Egypt was burning. When the UN chief addressed the crowd he waxed eloquently about scarce resources, saying "we have mined our way to growth and pawned our way to prosperity and now supplies are scarce and the scarcest resource is time."

Yet Egypt was not mentioned in any of the regular panels even though it was Topic A in corridor talk among delegates. So was the question of whether Tunisia's revolt might now threaten to really and truly spread across Northern Africa and beyond. Well dressed plutocrats, academics, business leaders and policy wonks kept asking each other "what's the latest from Egypt" and the question of whether "it's all over for Mubarak" was overshadowing everything else by late Friday afternoon.

David Cameron was smooth and articuate in explaining his austerity plan for Britain, but it was only when he was rushed by reporters that he replied on the subject of Egypt.

A number of delegates, including your correspondent, began to suspect that it wasn't so much a case of denial, as the inability of the Davos meeting machinery to drop in a special panel on the Egyptian crisis at a moment's notice, though I gather organizers were scrambling to assemble one on Saturday.

Likewise, an even nastier thought crossed the minds of many here: what if most of the global business and political elites in talks here actually were too embarrassed to say they would prefer the authoritarian government of Hosni Mubarak to carry on in order to provide stability?

It certainly is a hard choice, almost impossible, because the Mubarak regime may be heavily compromised. But the only alternative is even worse: Watching the supposedly moderate (but dangerous) opposition Muslim Brotherhood play kingmaker to Mohamed el-Baradei's dream of returning from his posh and tax-free lifestyle in the UN system to become Mubarak's successor. (el-Bardei was himself arrested on Friday in Cairo!)

If there is one thing worse than a phony democracy, it is a group whose spiritual leader preaches anti-Semitism, Jihad against the infidel Westerners and an Islamic theocracy, and whose Saudi financing network is said to have helped Al Qaeda, along with offshoots everywhere.

Whatever the case, the eerie silence in official Davos seemed very perplexing, and almost shameful.

Now, it is irrelevant what the Davos meetings wish to say or do about Egypt. Events are simply moving too fast for the talkfest to keep pace. And on Saturday night it will be time for the lavish and black-tie soiree that closes out the annual meetings here; that should be even more surreal than the silence.

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Alan Friedman, a longtime Davos attendee, is chairman of FBC Media, a public relations and communications firm whose roster of clients includes foreign governments. He has worked as an economics columnist for the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal. [This bio was amended to reflect the nature of FBC's work.]

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