Egypt’s president boisterous after billions of dollars in deals signed at economic conference

Egypt’s president claimed broad support from the international community for his vision of the future on Sunday, in a boisterous speech to an investor conference that saw billions pledged to boost an economy left battered by four years of turmoil following a popular uprising.

A jubilant Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi acknowledged Egypt’s road to recovery will be long and costly, but described the three-day summit as an overwhelming success, recognizing companies and governments for their vote of confidence.

“I would like to thank you all who came to the event — envoys, deputies or prime ministers, and of course monarchs and kings and princes,” he told a packed auditorium in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, where crowds gave him several standing ovations. “You have no idea how happy you’ve made the Egyptian people.”

At the meeting’s closing, a teary-eyed Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab said the conference had netted $36.2 billion in investments that had been signed and were ready to be implemented, thanking allies for the support. Dozens of town residents drove up to the conference center as the meeting closed, waving Egyptian flags, honking their horns in celebration, and causing a brief traffic jam.

Many questions had lingered in the run-up to the conference — whether it would meet expectations for billions in investment, whether companies would be ready to overlook political risks in a country with a lingering militant insurgency, and whether political leaders would be willing to set aside concerns over human rights and vocally back the leadership of el-Sissi, who overthrew his Islamist predecessor in 2013.

“It’s a great show of support from investors and world leaders, and an excellent way to hold the government to account for the ambitious policies it has announced,” said Angus Blair of investment advisory firm Signet.

Besides major Gulf backers United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, who kicked off the conference by announcing over $12 billion in aid and investment, Western powers including the United States, France, Britain and Italy also praised the steps el-Sissi has taken over the past year, a message that was echoed by those from international institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

El-Sissi has staked his legitimacy on fixing the economy and restoring security to the Arab world’s most populous country, and the three-day conference had sought a clear sign of international confidence in its political stability, after a 2011 revolt that overthrew longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak, followed by military rule and the one-year reign of an elected but divisive president, the Islamist Mohamed Morsi.

Since Morsi’s ouster, led by then-army chief el-Sissi, the government has cracked down hard on his Muslim Brotherhood, other Islamists and secular and liberal activists, with hundreds killed and thousands imprisoned.

The country is also fighting Islamic militants in a corner of the Sinai Peninsula a few hundred kilometers (miles) to the north — a long-running insurgency that picked up after Morsi’s overthrow.

In recent weeks, militants have shifted their focus to a campaign of small bombings aimed at local and foreign business interests in Cairo and other cities, including an American fast food chain, a branch of an Emirati bank, French supermarket chain Carrefour and foreign mobile phone service companies.

While the government’s fierce crackdown on Islamist opponents has killed hundreds, landed some 20,000 people in prison, and brought heavy criticism over the last 20 months, none of that prevented global players from attending the conference, reaffirming their commitments to the country and boosting investments.

“With 22 heads of state and 3,500 delegates, it’s the largest summit of CEOs and world leaders I’ve ever seen,” said event organizer Richard Attias, who has also arranged the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

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