DAVOS, (Reuters) – Egypt is the absent ghost at this year’s Davos feast.
The global elite of bankers, CEOs and politicians attending the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum have generally sidestepped any mention of the protests sweeping the Arab world’s most populous nation.
The Egyptian official delegation pulled out of the Forum just before it started. Trade and Industry Minister Rachid Mohamed Rachid, a Davos regular, gave no reason for his cancellation, but it coincided with the violent protests against the 30-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak.
“When CEOs stay for too long they become stale. So when you have a leader like in Egypt this was a very natural thing to happen,” said a Saudi executive, who declined to be identified because he was related to the royal family.
Arab executives attending the Forum followed events in Cairo closely, some watching pictures of clashes between protesters and police on their iPad tablet computers in between sessions.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty about what’s happening in Egypt,” said Abdullah Saeed Bazid, executive vice president of corporate strategy at Saudi’s SABIC, when asked about the unrest. “But I think things will not end up like Tunisia and the government will gain control again.”
Marco Dunand, chairman and co-founder of energy trader Mercura, said that if the unrest in Egypt spread across the Middle East, the consequences for oil supplies could be serious.
“Whatever government will come in, Egypt will export oil,” he told Reuters. “You may have a temporary disruption. If it starts spreading into the Middle East that is a different game. If it goes to Saudi Arabia or similar, people will start paying attention. That could bring a lot of volatility for sure.”
Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa, an Egyptian, is one of the most senior Arabs at this year’s Davos meeting. He spoke on the Forum’s first day but has been keeping a low profile since.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appealed at the WEF on Friday for Egypt’s leaders not to let violence escalate further, calling for respect for freedom of association and speech.
“I have been calling on the authorities to see this situation as an opportunity to address the legitimate concerns of their people,” Ban told a news conference.
Mamadou Kwidjim Toure, founder of a youth NGO called Africa 2.0, said Egypt’s young people should keep up their protests and sounded a warning for rulers further south on the continent.
“African governments should take into account that the youth population makes up 60 percent and therefore should make sure to involve them in all of the decisions, or else we will see protests like the ones happening today,” he told Reuters.
Kanayo Nwanze, president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development, echoed a widespread fear among the elite Davos delegates that the unrest might spread further.
“Egypt is not Tunisia and if the government falls down there it would cause instability for the entire Middle East region, because its the heart and centre of the Middle East,” he said.
Charles Ergen, CEO of Dish Network, a U.S. satellite TV operator, said he thought Egyptians would get around the government’s shutdown of mobile and Internet communication.
“It could be satellite. Uplinks may be outside of Egypt. How do you shut down a satellite?” he said.
Most Western leaders at the Davos meeting did not refer to Egypt in their public comments. But when pressed by reporters at a news conference, Icelandic President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson offered a rare on-record remark:
“Modern information technologies are empowering people everywhere,” he said. “No longer can ruler rely on the established, old fashioned mechanism of state power to prevent events from happening. It carries a strong message.”