SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt – Police, soldiers and masked special forces wielding new assault rifles man checkpoints along the main roads of Egypt's Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, which has been freshly polished for an international conference opening Friday seeking billions of dollars in investment.
Roads were lined with foreign flags as well as advertisements for companies such as British Petroleum and Egypt's CIB Bank, two major participants in the conference. Hanging in the main tourist market and elsewhere around the resort are posters of the president, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who has staked much of his legitimacy on fixing an economy deeply damaged by four years of turmoil since the 2011 uprising that ousted longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
The conference is the government's centerpiece for showing that the country is ready for business. The venue, Sharm el-Sheikh, at the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula, is equally symbolic. The beach resort, with nearby reefs, is one of the engines that kept Egypt's tourism industry alive, even if barely, by continuing to draw visitors even as tourism plunged nationwide after the 2011 uprising. On Thursday, some hotels reported being nearly full, and the beachfront markets were busy, mostly with tourists from eastern Europe.
Solar-powered lamps installed over the past months line the road from the touristic Naama Bay to the airport, cutting past manicured lawns, freshly painted buildings and streets.
"The town is looking better than ever, clean, elegant, secure and well prepared for the event," said participant Ahmed Elkharashy, a manager for Carbon Holdings, an Egyptian company developing petrochemical projects.
In the northern Sinai Peninsula, the Egyptian military and security forces have been waging a fierce fight against Islamic militants who stepped up an insurgency after the military, led by el-Sissi at the time, ousted the elected but divisive Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, in July 2013. Though militants have carried out a few attacks in the south of the peninsula, so far the many tourist resorts along the Red Sea coast have felt a world away from the violence.
Some 50,000 additional troops had been stationed in the Sinai Peninsula ahead of the conference, and army and police have been put on alert around the country, said a security official who spoke anonymously as he wasn't authorized to brief journalists. El-Sissi met with army and security leaders to review security plans, his office said.
By nightfall Thursday, soldiers stood posted every 50 meters (yards) for at least a kilometer (0.6 miles) along the road to the conference registration center, and police checked vehicle trunks and undercarriages around the airport.
The much-hyped conference, attended by hundreds of business leaders and senior officials, will be a measure of international confidence not only in Egypt's economic potential but also its political stability, given the insurgency and the government's fierce crackdown on Islamist opponents, which has killed hundreds, landed thousands in prison and brought heavy criticism.
Foreign investment dried up after the 2011 uprising — plunging from a high of $13 billion in 2007-2008 to $2.2 billion. Annual economic growth rates fell from a high of 7 percent to around 2 percent. The numbers have begun to inch back up, with the International Monetary Fund projecting 3.8 percent growth for the fiscal year ending June 30, and 4.3 percent in 2015/2016. Foreign direct investment came in at $4 billion last year, and Investment Minister Ashraf Salman says it will double to $8 billion in this fiscal year.