Threats, protests greet conference


CAIRO, Egypt -- Egypt hopes that sponsoring a once-a-decade international conference on how to keep from overcrowding the world will be a boon to the country's prestige and pocketbook.

But so far, the International Conference on Population and Development, which opens tomorrow, has been a global-sized headache.

Even before the 12,000 delegates and representatives began to arrive, the Vatican had squared off against the conference, a radical Muslim group vowed to kill arriving Westerners, at least two countries have pulled out, and wary Egyptians were being told that drag queens would be prancing in the street.

The conference, attended by Vice President Al Gore and representatives of 180 countries, is intended to develop strategies for slowing and eventually halting population growth before the world becomes too thick with people.

There are now 5.7 billion people on Earth, and current growth will double that figure in 50 years. Some predict catastrophes of food and resource shortages, wars, and massive environmental fouling.

But the Vatican has focused on the issue of abortion. The pope has lambasted the conference repeatedly as one that will legitimize abortion.

He has joined in an odd alliance with Islamic fundamentalists, who say the conference is a plot by the West against the Third World and will contaminate Egypt with homosexuals, single mothers and abortion advocates.

The host of the conference, Egyptian Population Minister Maher Mahran, is combative. Mainstream Islamic leaders support the conference, he said. The Vatican is "out to destroy family planning." And, as for the criticisms, "if no one criticizes you, you are doing nothing."

But just in case, Egypt has deployed some 14,000 police to protect the conference. Security is extraordinarily tight, as truckloads of soldiers cruise through Cairo. Guards at hotels are being diligent about checking handbags for bombs. The road to the conference center is lined with police, and there are extra guards at tourist attractions as far away as Luxor and Aswan.

The last thing Egypt wants is a violent incident at this conference, which it sees as the key to reviving its crippled tourist industry. Islamic fundamentalist have scared Western tourists away with occasional bomb and gun attacks since early 1992. Last week, a 13-year-old Spanish boy was shot to death while on a tourist bus in southern Egypt.

The Gamaa al-Islamiya, an extremist Muslim group out to overthrow the government, warned two weeks ago it would attack Westerners at the conference. And Islamic lawyers filed a suit to stop the conference, but the legal action failed.

Out of Islamic brotherhood, Sudan and Saudi Arabia have pulled out of the conference. Libya's participation is uncertain, as is a planned appearance by Bangladesh Prime Minister Khaleda Zia.

But the thousands of others are not deterred. For the first time, representatives of nongovernmental advocacy groups are attending, promising to enliven the debate of the governmental representatives during the eight-day conference.

"Even if this conference were canceled, it will have done a great job," contended Dr. Mahran.

Just by the controversy, he said, "it has succeeded in raising the illiteracy of millions of people about how the fate of the universe is at great risk."

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