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Egypt gets barely a nod at Davos

Davos is a long way away from Cairo: more than 2,500 kilometers as the crow flies. But the World Economic Forum’s lack of public discussion about the situation unfolding in Egypt suggests it could be on another planet.

Sign spelling out Davos

Delegates at Davos weren't all that interested in talking about Egypt

As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Microsoft founder Bill Gates stressed the importance of sustainable development at the World Economic Forum on Friday morning, Egyptian security forces were preparing for a fourth day of clashes with anti-government demonstrators.

When German Chancellor Angela Merkel delivered her articulate but stern lecture on the importance of reducing government debt and protecting the euro in the late afternoon, many delegates in the audience were only half listening. They were busy watching the latest videos of the protests on their smart phones and iPads.

Merkel's address made no mention of the unrest in northern Africa. It was only when reporters cornered her afterwards that Merkel said stability in Egypt was important - but not at the expense of freedom of expression.

"We must do all we can so that the violence comes to an end so there are no innocent victims," Merkel told the hastily convened news conference.

"There is no point in locking up people or reducing access to information," she continued. "The stability of the country is of course extremely important but not at the cost of freedom of opinion."

Deafening silence

protest in Cairo

Davos delegates stuck to their own scripts, but many others there were distracted by Egypt

Afterwards, as forum participants filed into a nearby hotel for an evening of free food and champagne courtesy of the Indian delegation, the question on everyone's lips was "what's the latest in Egypt?" and "how will it end?"

But journalists covering the event had difficulty finding delegates willing to comment on the record. Egypt was barely mentioned in any of the main panel discussions in the first three days of talks at Davos - and organizers showed no sign of changing the agenda.

Alan Friedman, a delegate writing for The Atlantic magazine, questioned whether the silence was the result of planning difficulties or whether global business and political elites were simply too embarrassed to say they would prefer the authoritarian government of Hosni Mubarak to stay in power in order to provide stability.

Call to action

Human rights organization Amnesty International picked up on the silence and urged the World Economic Forum to live up to its stated goal of "improving the state of the world" and address the situation directly.

"The protests in Egypt and elsewhere are a wake-up call to all those gathered in Davos," Amnesty Secretary-General Salil Shetty said in a statement.

"It is time the rhetoric on human rights and reform delivered here is matched with genuine steps to uphold the rights of people."

Change of plans

When forum organizers did finally change the program and dedicate roughly 30 minutes to a podium discussion about Egypt on Saturday, the panel was largely comprised of journalists and academics as opposed to political leaders or high-powered executives.

World Economic Forum logo

Human Rights Watch called on the forum to live up to its goal of "improving the state of the world"

Their comments offered little in the way of surprises. Lord Mark Malloch-Brown, a former British minister of state who is now chairman of global affairs at FTI consulting, said that if the Egyptian government fell it would have wide-reaching consequences for northern Africa.

Kishore Mahbubani, the dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore, urged caution, saying it was too early to predict how a change of leadership in Cairo would affect social and economic conditions there.

Yale professor and globalization expert Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon defended the Davos communication flow, or lack thereof, saying foreigners need to be careful about the messages and policies they project towards Egypt.

"The problem is that if the president of the United States or the chancellor of Germany says something, that will be known in streets of Cairo, and that could tip a very delicate balance," he said.

"I think this problem is up to the Egyptians to solve it, to decide it, and to build their new democracy."

Author: Sam Edmonds, Davos
Editor: Kyle James

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