Davos Journal 2011

In Davos, Egypt takes a back seat to economic issues

January 28, 2011: 12:52 PM ET

The world's heavyweights are gathered to talk about carefully selected topics. An uprising doesn't make it on the official agenda.

cairo protests

Riot police in Cairo, a world away from Davos.

There are a few big stories this year in the sessions at Davos: The developed world's massive deficits, the rise of developing countries, the future of the euro.

Off the mountain top, there is only one big story: Egypt.

Davos, of course, is its own world, 1,600 miles from Cairo and a trillion times more removed from the riots in the streets. There are groups of men in suits and women in fashionable heels (the coat checks provide World Economic Forum-branded bags for snow boats) swapping gossip, complaining about government decisions and wondering about how best to invest and who to do deals with. But Egypt? Well, until this afternoon, I never heard it mentioned on a panel, at a party or in passing.

Why? For one, everyone comes here with an agenda and has four days to advance it as far and as fast as possible with as many decision makers as he or she can. French President Nicolas Sarkozy wanted to talk about why France and Germany will never abandon the euro -- and he stayed on message. A senior government official from Chile was just behind me talking to someone about how he's here to talk water rights. Bankers like JP Morgan's (JPM) Jamie Dimon are defending their right to exist and entrepreneurs are looking for funding and exits. Joe Jimenez, the CEO of Novartis (NVS), came here for the first time; his goal has been to get a sense of whether people are generally optimistic.

The second reason why Egypt hadn't been on top topic here until just a few hours ago: It's an explosive subject. What business wants most is stability. The more clearly leaders can see the road, the easier it is to plan and run a company or an economy. But the global leaders here can't be on the record simply supporting the status quo (or status quo in Egypt as of earlier this week). They also can't go on record pushing a revolution. If they do that, what effect does it have on the contracts they've inked or the divisions they run in countries whose rulers are nervously glued to Al Jezeera? As everyone is fond of saying on just about every panel, we're in a world that's more globalized than ever. The flapping of lips in Davos can cause a storm a world away.

The third is that World Economic Forum isn't exactly built to respond to news. Everything here is planned and carefully managed. The badge readers work flawlessly, the sessions start and stop on time, massive egos are carefully nurtured to allow them time in the spotlight. "This isn't a barge that can be turned," a WEF worker told me. Scrambling a new session on what's happening and what's next isn't going to happen.

About the only people who, it seems, who have been following the turns in Egypt obsessively are the technorati. While Charlie Rose interviewed Tim Geithner this morning in the main conference hall, entrepreneur Esther Dyson tweeted: "Why so little discussion of Egypt and beyond? That could be what we remember about this week 10 years from now."

I saw her recently saw her sitting in a corner reserved for "Technology Pioneers." She was at a table with Robert Scoble who was livestreaming Al Jazeera on his MacBook. Bill Gross of Idealabs was just leaving Scoble's side. He had to run to a panel on the future of the enterprise, but his thoughts were on the Arab uprising: "It's the only thing I'm talking about."

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Dan Roth
Dan Roth

Daniel Roth is the editor of FORTUNE.com, overseeing its daily analysis of the biggest topics in business and the most important companies. Previously, Roth was a senior writer at Wired magazine. His 2008 cover story on Shai Agassi was a finalist at the Loeb business journalism awards and his story on Demand Media was included in Yale University Press' Best Technology Writing 2010. Before Wired, Roth was the first writer and founding member of Cond Nast Portfolio. Roth also served as a senior writer and senior editor at FORTUNE for eight years.

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