Beyond the sun loungers is that Mubarak we see?
Tourists believe he is in Sharm el-Sheikh, but armed guards are saying nothing. Donald Macintyre goes in search of the dictator
Monday 14 February 2011
There is something a little surreal about moving in next door to Hosni Mubarak. Walking the extensive grounds of Sharm el-Sheikh's Maritim Jolie Ville Golf resort, adjacent to the winter palace where nobody is very keen to admit the ex-dictator is ensconced, is eerily reminiscent of Patrick McGoohan's 1960's TV series The Prisoner.
True, the resort is a much kitscher version of Portmeirion, where the cult series about a captive secret agent was set: palm trees, astroturf, poolside loungers, and nondescript sub-Arabesque bungalows replacing the rhododendrons and quirky 1920s villas of Clough Williams Ellis. But the combination of mystery, an imposing police presence and a sprawling seaside holiday village is irresistibly similar, down to the navy blue-sweatered hotel security man who frequently follows at a not-so-discreet distance when you venture to and from your room.
At the main gate from Peace Road, uniformed police armed with pistols and plain clothes men have set up a mobile checkpoint where they painstakingly examine passports, and question incoming guests. Where the road bends left and towards the hotel, a right fork is blocked off by multiple steel barriers – moveable only for essential goods and the lucky few allowed in – and another contingent of taciturn police. It's obvious that this is the private road to Casa Mubarak.
Go down to the jetty nearest to where the 84-year-old Hosni Mubarak has his sea view, look up to the rocks on the right, and there in the middle distance is another official group of men, with an umbrella to protect them from the sun, and what looks suspiciously like a machine gun on a tripod. Having been followed down to shore by one of the hotel's own security men, I was moved on by a tracksuited member of the Jolie Ville "Recreation Team" who explained this jetty was closed for "engineering".
Nor was there much hope of swimming out beyond the warning rope a few metres from the beach and taking a look from the ocean. "Sharks," I was firmly told. When I made a vain attempt last night to check out a hotel guest's report that another machine gun emplacement was to be found on the roof of one of the hotel complex's own buildings, it was a mere minute before another of its security men purred up to me in a golf buggy. Security seems to have been tightened in the last 24 hours and a policeman at the barrier to the private road, asked yesterday afternoon whether the President – who has taken ill since his fall from office, according to some reports – was there, said "No", but in a tone which strongly suggested his true meaning was "Don't go there".
For there is no-one in Sharm el Sheikh, including the small minority of residents, most of them Britons, not put off by travel warnings over the Egyptian uprising and who went ahead with their holidays at the Jolie Ville, who is not convinced that he is here. All have been put in the Royal Wing, where the lavish rooms have been heavily discounted to $160 a night; and all are equally convinced that the mushroom-like dome visible behind the tastefully beige painted concrete wall, perhaps six metres high, not to mention the ring of high sodium lights inside it visible at night across the asymmetrical swimming pool, is part of his retreat.
Not so, I was assured by Natalya, the hotel's nice customer relations person from Belarus. "You will not see Mr Mubarak's place from any part of the hotel." What was behind the wall then? "I think it is another hotel." Did it have a name? Not one Natalya chose to share. Instead she added, just a little more chillily: "I think you are a reporter. I don't know why reporters would come here." Then she repeated that any hopes of seeing the Mubarak residence were utterly misplaced.
But Norman Bailey, from Manchester, who runs a newsagent's business, and is here with his wife on his fourth trip to the resort, presumes, as do all the other guests, that it is behind the wall. He says he has seen what looks like men guarding it from his second floor window. "There's always security, of course, but there's more of it when he is here," he said. Mr Bailey said he hadn't been aware of the President's arrival until it was reported on television, and hadn't been perturbed by it either. But then he loves the place. "There's been absolutely no problem over the last week, and the only difference is that it's been quieter."
Here Mr Bailey puts his finger on why Sharm is such a haven for Mr Mubarak. For though tourist traffic here is down from its usual February level of 65-70 per cent occupancy to 8-15 per cent, the revolution barely touched Sharm. Indeed police, off the streets of Cairo, functioned normally here. "Everyone likes to work here, thinks about his business and for tourism you need calm," explains Sharif Fayez, 30, who runs a diving equipment shop in Sharm's old market.
Mr Fayez says he welcomes the outcome – particularly the chance to try corrupt ministers. But he has little rancour against Mr Mubarak, blaming the regime's excesses of the last 15 years more on his ministers than the man himself. Was he comfortable with the deposed President's presence here? "Yes, if I saw him I would salute him and thank him for what he did."
General Ahmed Saleh El Edkawy, Secretary to the South Sinai Governor, agrees that economics was a heavily restraining factor here, arguing that unlike in north Sinai, the South Sinai Bedouin "are part of the society and they are also interested in tourism". Was General El Edkawy, who yesterday still had a portrait of a youthful-looking ex-President on the wall behind his desk, also relaxed about Mr Mubarak being in Sharm? "He is a citizen of Egypt," he shrugged. "He has the right to be here."
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