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Sharm el-Sheikh long an escape for Mubarak

By Janine Zacharia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 11, 2011; 5:40 PM

JERUSALEM - At the lowest moment of his political life, Hosni Mubarak was reported to retreat on Friday to a place from which both he and Egyptians have drawn special pride - the resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh in the Sinai Peninsula.

Once a sleepy fishing village, it is now a place of five-star hotels, a rival to the pyramids as a tourist attraction - and a reminder of one of Mubarak's and Egypt's most tangible achievements, reclaiming the Sinai Peninsula from Israeli occupation.

The recovery of the Sinai started in war - the 1973 conflict that inflicted one of Israel's few military setbacks - but only came to be through a subsequent peace treaty that Mubarak spent much of his career defending.

During his 30 years in power, he often mentioned the return of the Sinai as proof of the treaty's value, and the development of Sharm el-Sheikh and other towns into a "Red Sea Riviera" served to emphasize the point. In a city that Israeli Gen. Moshe Dayan coveted as a strategic prize, overlooking the Straits of Tiran at the juncture of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba, thousands of Egyptians now earned a living catering to planeloads of European and American vacationers.

Fittingly, the town may now serve as a sort of internal exile, comfortable to the man involved yet far enough from Cairo to satisfy the crowds who forced him from office. Easily accessible by direct flights from a number of world cities, it is an eight-hour drive from Cairo on sometimes treacherous desert roads that are guarded by multiple checkpoints - secure for a man whose departure was met with fireworks and cheers.

Mubarak's villa there has been both personal haven and public space. The 82-year-old leader routinely retired there for large stretches. He has also hosted frequent Middle East negotiating summits at his villa, which is on the edge of a golf course at the Movenpick resort overlooking the Gulf of Aqaba.

It was never difficult to tell when he was there. Guards would line the roadway between the airport and his home, evenly spaced along the route, their gaze fixed on any motion in the surrounding desert.

U.S. presidents and secretaries of state routinely weathered the city's blistering temperatures and dry heat to seek Mubarak's counsel and try to push forward Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. As recently as September, Mubarak hosted Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in a lavish, wood-paneled meeting room in his home. Summits held in Sharm el-Sheikh, however, have historically produced few concrete results.

Egyptian officials have preferred Sharm el-Sheikh over Cairo for high-profile meetings because the resort is packed with high-class accommodations and is much easier to secure.

Today, Sharm el-Sheikh, would ordinarily be in the middle of its peak tourism season. But hotels have had to lay off workers as visitors packed up and went home or stayed away amid the 18-day uprising that led to Mubarak's ouster.

The town has weathered tough times before. In 2005, terrorist attacks in Sharm el-Sheikh killed 88 tourists. Last December, a spate of shark attacks made international headlines after a shark killed a woman snorkeling off Sharm el-Sheikh's shores.

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