29 December 2007

Sarkozy ends his vacation to start an official visit to Egypt

Beirut / Cairo - Nicolas Sarkozy's holiday with his new girlfriend Carla Bruni and a swarm of paparazzi ends Sunday as the French president makes his Middle Eastern diplomatic debut with an official visit to Egypt.

Having visited Pharaonic monuments in the ancient city of Luxor and spent moments of balmy isolation at a villa in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh with ex-supermodel turned singer Bruni, Sarkozy must now face the thorny politics of the region.

Sarkozy breakfasted with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Friday in Sharm. They were joined for the second half of the meeting by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and his Egyptian counterpart Ahmed Abul Gheit.

Before heading to Egypt on a private jet controversially loaned by a French tycoon, Sarkozy hailed Mubarak as someone "whose experience has made him one of the most enlightened observers in the region and on its developments," according to his spokesman.

Regional veteran Mubarak, 79, had a warm relationship with Sarkozy's predecessors Jacques Chirac and Francois Mitterand and his support for the French leader's Mediterranean Union project is essential.

The two men met twice this year already, shortly before and after Sarkozy's May election win, promising to continue their "excellent" relations. Now he will have to reassert French policy in the volatile region.

Since becoming president in May, Sarkozy has ruffled Arab feathers by showing friendship for Israel and rejecting anti-Americanism -- widely seen as a change of policy from his pro-Arab and pro-African predecessors.

Sections of the Egyptian press deride him as President George W. Bush's new poodle, replacing British ex-premier Tony Blair.

"It's important to answer this," a French diplomat said recently.

"Today, we have re-established a relation of trust with Israel, but that doesn't stop France, which now has the trust of its Western allies, speaking to Syria or Iran."

During talks with Mubarak, Sarkozy will push his proposed Mediterranean Union grouping countries of the Mediterranean rim that is to be set in motion at a Paris summit in July.

Presented as a bridge between Europe, Africa and the Middle East, the Mediterranean Union has also been seen as an alternative to Turkish membership of the European Union.

Mubarak said in August he thought it was "an excellent proposition, which needs to be studied."

In a sign of good faith, Sarkozy will also add France to the queue of nations offering Mubarak technology for his atomic energy programme, restarted in October after a 20-year freeze.

Iran, Russia and the United States have also offered Egypt nuclear cooperation, while France has already proposed its civilian nuclear know-how to Lebanon and Algeria.

The Elysee Palace said the two leaders would also exchange views on regional issues including the constitutional crisis in Lebanon, the Middle East peace process, the conflict in Sudan's Darfur and anti-terrorism.

The French president is due to return to Paris to see in the New Year on December 31, while Bush is expected in the region a few days later as part of a Middle East tour from January 8 to 18.

French mission to Lebanon is over

French President Nicolas Sarkozy said after meeting his Egyptian counterpart in Cairo that France's mission in Lebanon has been complete.

France "has completed everything it had sought to achieve regarding the Lebanese file related to the presidential election," Sarkozy said in an interview with Al Ahram newspaper.

According to reports circulating in Beirut, the French pulled back from Lebanon after the US became active again . Deputy Secretary of State David Welch showed up twice in Beirut after French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner left the Lebanese capital. President Bush also showed more interest in Lebanon when he told the parliament majority “ we support the French initiative , but if this fails you should go ahead and elect a new president based on half plus one quorum “.

PSP leader MP Walid Jumblatt criticized the French effort on Monday when he launched a veiled attack on France for seeking a settlement with Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime over Lebanon's political crisis.

"To some silly propagandists in the international community who ask for a settlement with the Syrian regime we say: The free Lebanese people would not have mercy on those who come in the name of democracy to prostrate to the Damascus tyrant," Jumblatt wrote in the PSP weekly mouthpiece, al-Anbaa.

"Regardless of changes in regional and international circumstances, Lebanon will not rest assured as long as this junta continues to rule Damascus," he added.

Picture: Sarkozy with new his new girlfriend ex-supermodel turned singer Carla Bruni

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Lebanon Time-Line

Introducing Lebanon

Coolly combining the ancient with the ultramodern, Lebanon is one of the most captivating countries in the Middle East. From the Phoenician findings of Tyre (Sour) and Roman Baalbek's tremendous temple to Beirut's BO18 and Bernard Khoury's modern movement, the span of Lebanon's history leaves many visitors spinning. Tripoli (Trablous) is considered to have the best souk in the country and is famous for its Mamluk architecture. It's well equipped with a taste of modernity as well; Jounieh, formerly a sleepy fishing village, is a town alive with nightclubs and glitz on summer weekends.

With all of the Middle East's best bits - warm and welcoming people, mind-blowing history and considerable culture, Lebanon is also the antithesis of many people's imaginings of the Middle East: mostly mountainous with skiing to boot, it's also laid-back, liberal and fun. While Beirut is fast becoming the region's party place, Lebanon is working hard to recapture its crown as the 'Paris of the Orient'.

The rejuvenation of the Beirut Central District is one of the largest, most ambitious urban redevelopment projects ever undertaken. Travellers will find the excitement surrounding this and other developments and designs palpable - and very infectious.

Finally, Lebanon's cuisine is considered the richest of the region. From hummus to hommard (lobster), you'll dine like a king. With legendary sights, hospitality, food and nightlife, what more could a traveller want?

Introducing Beirut

What Beirut is depends entirely on where you are. If you’re gazing at the beautifully reconstructed colonial relics and mosques of central Beirut’s Downtown, the city is a triumph of rejuvenation over disaster.

If you’re in the young, vibrant neighbourhoods of Gemmayzeh or Achrafiye, Beirut is about living for the moment: partying, eating and drinking as if there’s no tomorrow. If you’re standing in the shadow of buildings still peppered with bullet holes, or walking the Green Line with an elderly resident, it’s a city of bitter memories and a dark past. If you’re with Beirut’s Armenians, Beirut is about salvation; if you’re with its handful of Jews, it’s about hiding your true identity. Here you’ll find the freest gay scene in the Arab Middle East, yet homosexuality is still illegal. If you’re in one of Beirut’s southern refugee camps, Beirut is about sorrow and displacement; other southern districts are considered a base for paramilitary operations and south Beirut is home to infamous Hezbollah secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah. For some, it’s a city of fear; for others, freedom.

Throw in maniacal drivers, air pollution from old, smoking Mercedes taxis, world-class universities, bars to rival Soho and coffee thicker than mud, political demonstrations, and swimming pools awash with more silicone than Miami. Add people so friendly you’ll swear it can’t be true, a political situation existing on a knife-edge, internationally renowned museums and gallery openings that continue in the face of explosions, assassinations and power cuts, and you’ll find that you’ve never experienced a capital city quite so alive and kicking – despite its frequent volatility.