Sharon Visit Rankles Egyptians

Israelis, Americans, Arabs and dignitaries from around the world have been welcome in this "city of peace" that will host Tuesday's Mideast summit. One man, however, had been kept at a distance until now: Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search).

Sharon, reviled among Arabs as a war monger and "butcher," finally was invited by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak (search) for what is hoped to be a watershed meeting with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas that will revive a long-stalled peace process. King Abdullah II (search) of Jordan, the only other Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel, will attend the summit.

Even before his arrival, Sharon's visit was causing a commotion in Egypt.

About 3,000 Egyptian university students protested Monday in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria and the Nile Delta city of Zagazig. "Out! Out! Sharon!" students in Alexandria shouted. A statement issued in the name of Egyptian students urged Egypt's prosecutor-general to arrest Sharon for war crimes when he arrives on Egyptian soil.

Protests also were expected in the capital on Tuesday.

Opposition newspapers decried the visit, with one calling it a "desecration of Egyptian territories." Political activists characterized his invitation as a bow to American pressure.

Arabs point to Sharon as responsible for the 1982 massacre in Lebanon's Sabra and Chatilla refugee camps, where hundreds of Palestinian refugees were killed by Israeli-allied militiamen. Sharon was defense minister at the time, but resigned after an Israeli commission of inquiry found him indirectly responsible for the massacre.

He also is blamed by Egyptians for the deaths of many Egyptian POWs during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and, as defense minister, oversaw Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

More recently, Sharon infuriated Arab Muslims with his September 2000 visit to holy shrines in Jerusalem, sparking riots that escalated into the Palestinian uprising Tuesday's summit is hoped to formally end.

Mubarak, who'd met with Sharon's predecessors, shunned Sharon as prime minister, dismissing him less than two years ago as a man with no intention of working for peace. But after Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat died in November, Mubarak did an about-face and began preparing his people to accept dealing with Sharon. He called Sharon the Palestinians' only hope for peace. And he continued offering conciliatory words.

In an interview with Al-Arabiya television in January, Mubarak said: "I know Sharon well," adding that it was Sharon as defense minister who dismantled Israeli settlements in Sinai before Israel's withdrawal in 1982. That was the only time the two men are known to have met.

Makram Mohammed Ahmed, editor in chief of al-Mussawar, a weekly magazine close to the presidency, said Sharon is a symbol of "oppressive power," but that he could redeem himself in Arab eyes if he is willing to compromise and make concessions.

"He can't respond to (Abbas) by shrugging him off," Ahmed said, because the Palestinian leader has fared well in the court of international public opinion.

But prospects of a cease-fire declaration aren't winning over Sharon's harshest detractors.

Farid Zahran, a co-organizer of protests planned for Tuesday in Cairo, said Mubarak caved to American pressure to invite Sharon to a summit to ease Washington's pressure to deliver on democratic political reform.

Mubarak's fourth six-year term ends this year and, as international pressure builds to spread democracy through the Middle East, calls have grown unusually loud against his continued rule. He has rejected calls for a constitutional referendum allowing for multi-candidate presidential elections.

In Jordan, Jamil Abu-Bakr, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, said Sharon's "hands and teeth are dripping with the blood of the Palestinian people, their children, women and old men."

At least a few Egyptians, however, are hopeful the summit will at least warm the climate enough to allow a return of Israeli tourists to Sinai.

"After the summit, all will be good again. The borders will be opened and development (in Sinai) will roar," Mohammed al-Naggar, a hotel accountant in Ras Sudr, along Sinai's western Red Sea coast, shouted to colleagues.

One of them, Mohammed Saber, said he hoped Sharon would end up emulating Israel's late Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin, who signed a peace deal with Arafat: "I hope he will be like Rabin and make things better."