Police boats cruised the Red Sea coast and guards at roadblocks used metal detectors to scrutinize contents of arriving cars Tuesday in a clampdown to ensure the safety of world leaders gathering in this remote sea-and-desert resort to take a global stance against terrorism.
Not surprisingly, officials were taking all necessary precautions after the recent spate of suicide bombings in neighboring Israel--terrorist acts that led to the summit. On the eve of the gathering in a luxury tourist hotel, members of Egypt's elite Presidential Guard were patrolling the beach carrying Uzis. Nearby, curious Italian and Swiss tourists in shorts, T-shirts and sun hats craned for glimpses of early-arriving dignitaries. Twenty-nine countries and institutions are sending delegations to the summit called by President Clinton and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Ironically, the venue for this summit designed to thwart terrorism was chosen largely with security concerns in mind.
Sharm el Sheik, a mecca for snorkelers and scuba divers because of the brilliant coral reefs and spectacular marine life just off its shore, is at the southern tip of the Sinai peninsula, with a single paved coastal highway leading in and out. The town is made up of a string of resort hotels and recently built houses overlooking white sand beaches and emerald-blue sea. Inland, dark sandstone mountains climb steeply to a craggy desolation.
To the north are thousands of square miles of sparsely populated peaks and desert. Given the area's remoteness and minuscule population, monitoring access to the town is an easier matter for police forces.
"I think the southern Sinai is one of the most secure places, maybe in the whole world," said Gen. Mustafa Abdel Kader of the Egyptian Interior Ministry. He would not give details of summit security but said the government has taken the steps appropriate to a gathering of so many heads of state and government, including moving in troops and technical support.
In any case, the threat that terrorism would mar a summit in the Sinai was considered remote. Although Islamic extremists opposed to Egypt's secular government have frequently attacked police and government officials in recent years, most of that violence has been limited to one area in Lower Egypt, on the mainland hundreds of miles west of here.
"It's no problem at all. In Sharm el Sheik, in Cairo or in any place in Egypt, you can feel secure," said Information Minister Safwat Sharif. In that spirit, organizers tried to maintain a business-as-usual atmosphere for tourists despite the obvious disruption of having some of the world's most prominent people, and about 2,000 journalists, dropping in for the one-day summit.
Officials said they were pleased that no visitors had to be asked to leave their rooms--even at the hotel where the leaders are meeting.
"The tourists carry on with their activities and enjoyment without any interference at all, and meanwhile we are making everything secure on land or on sea," said Abdel Kader, the Interior Ministry general.
According to Mamdoh Zohery, the Egyptian governor of the southern Sinai, Sharm el Sheik can accommodate 8,000 residents and visitors, but for the past several days it has played host to about 4,000 extra people.
Schools and youth hostels were converted to dormitories for workers involved in the summit preparations, and one homeowner was able to rent his house to a television crew for $600 a night. Three hundred extra phone lines were installed, augmenting the 2,000 normally in the town, and extra fuel and food were trucked in.
Despite these upheavals, the governor was not complaining. "The publicity we gain will be worth millions," he exulted.