Mubarak yet to be sighted in Sharm el-Sheikh exile

SHARM EL-SHEIKH, EGYPT - The large and luminous photos still float above the highway from the airport toward town - a serious, statesmanlike Hosni Mubarak; a smiling, relaxed Hosni Mubarak; a warm, fatherly Hosni Mubarak - as much a part of the landscape as the brilliant persimmon light settling over the limestone hills.

Sharm el-Sheikh, known to legions of tourists as a beautiful resort town on the Red Sea, has acquired a new identity over the past few days: home to the last redoubt of an authoritarian ruler. But just where that redoubt lies remains something of a state secret, the only hint being an intimidating police blockade on the road leading to the Maritim Jolie Ville Golf and Resort complex a few miles from the airport.

Mubarak is said to own a villa adjacent to the property. An elegant curve of a hotel building embraces a series of pools in an area about the size of three football fields, the palm-dotted landscape arrayed with roomy one-story accommodations and individual column-lined tile terraces.

Taxi drivers declare that Mubarak certainly is at a nearby villa, or a dozen or so police wouldn't be blocking the road with a heavy truck and stopping hotel guests to scrutinize their passports, inquire about their occupations and sweep their vehicles for bombs.

Hotel employees get nervous when asked whether he is here. One young man responded that of course he was, but when asked whether he had seen the president, he said no, of course not.

"We have no president," he proclaimed happily.

This resort town has been a haven for Mubarak in the past. He welcomed U.S. presidents and secretaries of state, too, as they tried to make progress on Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Strolling through the fresh night air here, scented with pansy and brightened by palm trees wrapped in strings of lights, it's hard to imagine why an 82-year-old man would resist so bitterly the invitation to retire.

Sharm el-Sheikh avoided the kind of protests that paralyzed Cairo for 18 days, and there has been no public campaign against Mubarak living out his final years here. So far, Egypt appears ready to let him disappear into his villa.

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