Resort town Mubarak built may be his permanent home

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 13, 2011 

SHARM EL SHEIK, Egypt — A large sign greets tourists flying into this sparkling resort town, welcoming them to the "City of Peace," but with the face of Hosni Mubarak hastily scratched out beneath.

The beachside town, made famous for its world-class diving and its five-star resorts, has perhaps become the final retreat of the ousted 82-year-old president.

It was Mubarak who championed the building of Sharm el Sheik, a once sleepy fishing village on the Red Sea at the tip of Sinai peninsula which Israel returned to Egypt under a 1979 peace treaty.

He used it as a showcase of the "New Egypt," and held numerous peace and business summits at the palatial villa and conference center he keeps here.

Sharm is also where Mubarak is believed to have stored a substantial portion of his wealth — some Egyptian media speculate that it's well into the billions. He owns several homes in the area, but is currently believed by residents to be staying on the outskirts of the Maritime Jolie Ville Golf & Resort.

While Egyptians ranging from Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq to local military officers manning checkpoints said they're sure that Mubarak is currently in Sharm, he's yet to be sighted. On other occasions, he's seen arriving, departing and driving about.

A 6,000 square foot golf course stretches between the resort entrance and Mubarak's property, but a well-guarded perimeter stops visitors from approaching. Egyptian soldiers and plainclothes policemen are on high alert across the resort, which largely has been shut down to create a perimeter for Mubarak.

The owner of the golf course is thought to be a close friend of the Mubarak family, and though the resort claimed to be fully functioning, only a handful of guests were out on the links Sunday.

Hotel workers nervously bustled around the nearly empty grounds. Several told McClatchy that they're sure of Mubarak's presence but then whispered that they'd been warned not to discuss it.

"We are not sure if he is in prison there, or on vacation," said one kitchen worker, who wouldn't give her name for fear of losing her job. However, she noted the arrival of Swiss chocolates and other gourmet foods of the sort kept on hand when Mubarak is in Sharm.

It was unclear how long Mubarak's stay in Sharm will last. Egyptian papers speculated that Mubarak could seek exile on Dubai, or in the United Arab Emirates. Mubarak also frequents the German spa town of Baden-Baden, and many experts think he'll go there in the coming weeks.

Mubarak's luxurious lifestyle in Sharm represents much of what protesters rallied against in the streets of Egypt. The town's resorts boast waterparks, and menus heavy on French and Japanese cuisine.

"This is the Egypt Mubarak wanted the world to see," said Fares Amin, a local tour guide who said he saw Mubarak's presidential plane at the Sharm el Sheik airport Friday.

But to the 40 percent of Egyptians who live on less than $2 a day, Sharm el Sheik represented the extent of the Mubarak family's corruption and wealth.

"Mubarak did not care that the average Egyptian working in Sharm was still not making enough to support his family or ever dream of a vacation of his own. Mubarak cared that he and his friends make money in Sharm," Amin said.

With more than 3 million visitors last year, Sharm accounted for almost half of Egypt's tourist income.

Sharm has nearly 100 hotels, with an occupancy rate that hovers from 70 percent to 90 percent. This week, however, the hotels reported less than 30 percent occupancy.

"How will Sharm survive if people are afraid to come?" asked Mohammad Baden, a shopkeeper with a stall in the old city market. "Having Mubarak may just scare away more people than ever."

The few tourists still milling around the resorts in Sharm said they're intimidated by the police presence, and preferred to stay in the bubble of their resorts.

"I'm not going to let it cut short the holiday, but I also won't take any chances," said Susan Meyers, a 33-year-old tourist from Dublin, Ireland.

(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2010

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