Addressing the 1,300 assembled delegates on Saturday at the first WEF on the Middle East to be held in Egypt, the 78-year-old Hosni Mubarak implied that the US was running a foreign policy that promoted double standards on nuclear issues, ignored international opposition to the invasion of Iraq and was meddling in the internal affairs of countries - including his own - by pressing for Western-style democratic reforms.

Mubarak also used the biggest gathering of foreign officials and business leaders Egypt has ever seen to deliver that message to the Americans, who have counted on him as an anchor for their policies in the Arab world.

Mubarak, who has faced repeated US criticism in recent months for failing to follow through on promises of political reform, appears to have turned on the Bush administration on virtually every important Middle East policy issue with the exception of his efforts to mediate an Israeli-Palestinian peace.

"We shall never relax our efforts with either the Palestinians or Israelis in pushing them back toward the path of negotiations," Mubarak said.

As part of the 1979 Camp David peace accords Egypt signed with Israel, the US agreed to send Cairo $3 billion in aid annually.

Secret trip

Gamal Mubarak, the president's son and viewed by many as his heir-apparent, made a secret trip to Washington on May 12 for talks with George Bush, the US president, Dick Cheney, the vice president, and Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state.

There has been no clear explanation from either side about why the younger Mubarak made the trip and why it was kept secret until reported three days later by an Arab television correspondent, who chanced to see Gamal Mubarak going into the White House.

Gamal Mubarak recently met top
US officials in the White House

Before the official opening of the annual conference on Middle East issues, Ahmed Nazif, the Egyptian prime minister, described the son's journey as an effort at smoothing out relations.

"When the man goes there as a member of the ruling party, he's there in many cases either to start asking questions about US policies, what are their intentions, what are they doing especially about the Middle East and to explain what we're doing in terms of reform politically and economically," Nazif said.

Given the criticism he levelled at Washington on Saturday, the elder Mubarak apparently was not pleased with what his son reported back.

The Egyptian leader said he saw a double standard in the US nuclear policy, under which Washington maintains a resolute silence about the nuclear arsenal Israel is believed to possess while it conducts a campaign to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Multilateralism

Mubarak further challenged the Bush administration to work towards a world "that fosters multilateralism, abides by international legitimacy and steers away from unilateral actions", a clear reference to his and other Arab leaders' distaste for the American invasion of Iraq.

The Egyptian leader hammered on the need for more equal economic and trade treatment for developing countries which he said have been forced to take on "significant burdens" to the advantage of the major economic powers.

The US has condemned Egypt's
handling of opposition protests

He also said democratic reforms in the Middle East should "emanate from within the region", a rejection of US attempts to promote Western-style democracy among Arab governments.

Mubarak skirted the political and terrorist turmoil that has shaken his government over the past few years, including deadly bombings at Sinai resorts.

He referred only obliquely to recent violence in the streets of Cairo, where his security forces have beaten pro-democracy demonstrators twice in the past two weeks. The US openly criticised Mubarak's handling of the protests.

Instead, he said, he was confident his government was "on the right path" in its reform efforts, but he cautioned that the process should be gradual to avoid "chaos and setbacks".

Tight security

Overwhelming security measures were in force throughout Sharm el-Sheikh and around the conference centre, venue for the three-day meeting - the first of its kind in this resort city, known for its splendid beaches and vibrant coral reefs.

At least 119 people have been killed in terrorist attacks at Sinai resorts, starting with the October 2004 bombings at Taba and Ras al-Shitan that killed 34 people at the tourist resorts near the Israeli border.

A triple bombing in Sharm el-Sheikh last summer killed 64, and just a month ago, another triple bombing killed at least 21 at Dahab, a scuba-diving resort not far north of Sharm.