Egypt Crisis Dominates Final Day at Davos

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In the corridors of Davos, the fear was that Muslim Brotherhood would come to power with an extremist Islamic agenda.


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DAVOS, Switzerland - As the world's power elite began to wrap up the annual meetings of the World Economic Forum here, some experts and politicians began to warn that the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak could lead to more than instability - it could result in the country either facing a power void or even being taken over by Islamic or extremist forces.

And others, like the head of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), warned that the Egypt crisis could trigger dangerous economic consequences for the West. Already the price of oil is spiking and many equity markets are nervous about the uprising in Egypt.

Former Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo, one of numerous delegates here who began opining Saturday on the situation in Cairo, said it was hard to forecast the outcome. But he made clear that those calling for a full and instant democracy after 30 years of authoritarian rule should consider what might come next.

"Be careful about what you wish for," he said. "You can say what is happening is profound, but the suggestion that it is easy to flip aside an authoritarian state and install a utopian democracy is dangerous," said Zedillo. "The biggest nightmare is for Israel to have the most populous Arab country on its doorstep in a state of instability."

In the corridors of the Davos proceedings, the fear being voiced by many was that the opposition Muslim Brotherhood could come to power, and that its self-perpetuated image of a moderate and charitable group focused on religious instruction and social services might mask a more extremist Islamic agenda.

This tactic is reminiscent of Hamas, the militant Palestinian movement that Israel has battled in Gaza. Hamas actually grew out of the Egyptian-based Muslim Brotherhood.

The Muslim Brotherhood, experts here said, is also similar to Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed militant political force in Lebanon, in the way it has shrewdly portrayed itself as a moderate force, dispensing largesse in the form of social aid.

The Muslim Brotherhood's spiritual leader, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, also known by counter-terrorism experts as an early inspiration of Osama bin Laden, on Saturday called for Mubarak to leave Egypt.

"Mubarak must give up his position and leave Egypt," he said in a speech that was broadcast on Al Jazeera. "There is no solution other than the departure of Mubarak. Go, Mubarak, leave these people!"

At Davos, another warning was issued by former United Nations deputy secretary-general and British foreign office minister with responsibility for Africa, Lord Mark Malloch-Brown.

"If Egypt goes then you have to ask if other Middle Eastern countries, like Jordan or Syria, are now in play," he told delegates here.

Senator John Kerry, also here at Davos, told BBC World News that Mubarak needed to respond to the concerns of his citizens.

"The key is for Mr Mubarak to respond adequately to real frustrations and pent-up demand in the general population of Egypt," he said, adding that Mubarak "can turn this into a positive and transformative event for Egypt."

If that last comment sounds a bit naïve, Kerry was careful to add that the situation may have gone too far to be recovered.

While Egypt overshadowed the Davos meetings, a brighter message was delivered by three new members of the transition government of Tunisia, who made their debut here Saturday.

Two ministers and the new central bank governor blithely told delegates here that "Tunisia is open for business again."

Mustapha Kamel Nabli, new Tunisian Central Bank Governor, tried to talk up his country's post-revolution climate by saying there is now "a much more favourable business environment."

"We don't see any major difficulties and would like to make this clear to investors," he added, noting that while tourism had been badly damaged by the violence, people were returning to work, public services were working, and the banking system was functioning.

"I would like to convey to investors that that the country has returned to business. Democracy is good for investment," Nabli said.

While delegates remained fixated on the unfolding events in Egypt, Europe-s woes became something of a sideshow.

German and French government ministers continued to fan out across Davos on Saturday claiming the euro-zone sovereign debt crisis would soon be over, there was no doubt about the survival of the European currency, and there would be no further crises.

This "don't worry, be happy" message was a trifle too optimistic, especially since the more hard-headed financial leaders here were predicting that Greece could soon face a technical default that would be fudged by way of a European debt rescheduling rescue package. And nobody was claiming that Ireland is out of the woods with its crisis, nor that Portugal and Spain are safe.

But after the sun went down Saturday night and the temperature dropped to sub-zero temperatures, delegates rushed back to their hotels for more champagne receptions, lobster and canapes, and the inevitable change of day garb into black tie elegance for the closing "soiree" which was to be hosted by at least one optimistic and unashamed delegation...India.

The Bollywood dancers and gourmet food may seemed an odd juxtaposition with the dramatic and pessimistic rhetoric about Egypt's crisis, but don't forget: This is Davos, where time is compressed, anything can happen, and many members of the power elite still like to party like there is no tomorrow.


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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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