SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt - Egypt raked in promises of more than $12 billion in investment and aid from its Gulf Arab allies Friday, kicking off an international conference aimed at rescuing the country's gutted economy and giving a political boost to its president.
The three-day gathering in the Sinai resort of Sharm el-Sheikh is meant to show the world Egypt is open for business again to draw investors after four years of instability and turmoil following the 2011 Arab Spring uprising that ousted longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi made his case for the world's support, depicting Egypt as vital to regional stability and a bulwark against Islamic militancy.
"Egypt has and will always be the first line of defense against the dangers faced by the region," Sissi, wearing a dark suit and a purple tie, said to one of many rounds of applause that interrupted his 26-minute address. About 1,500 delegates from more than 50 nations were in attendance.
The gathering of royals, heads of state, top international officials, and businessmen was also an opportunity for Sissi to put behind him criticism over the military's 2013 ouster of Egypt's elected president, Islamist Mohammed Morsi.
Since the ouster - which was led by Sissi, then head of the military - the government has cracked down hard on Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists, with hundreds killed and thousands imprisoned. It has also targeted secular and liberal activists. At the same time, Egyptian security forces have been battling a growing Islamic militant insurgency, mainly centered in the northern part of the Sinai Peninsula.
Secretary of State John Kerry, addressing the conference, made a strong show of support for Egypt, with only a glancing reference to rights concerns and a call for more transparency.
"This part of the world is blessed with a stunning amount of commercial potential," Kerry said at an American Chamber of Commerce event before the conference opened.
The United States, however, still cannot restore hundreds of millions of dollars in suspended military aid to Egypt, as Sissi has sought, because the Obama administration is undecided about whether to affirm Egypt's progress on democracy and human rights or issue a national security waiver. It must do one or other under the 2015 federal budget to unblock the aid.
Sissi outlined his economic recovery plan, saying he wanted to see at least 6 percent annual GDP growth within the next five years, up from around 2 percent currently, and reduce unemployment from its current 13 percent to about 10 percent.
The conference opening saw a swift series of pledges from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates, continuing a flood of about $30 billion in largesse they have provided since Sissi led the ouster of Morsi, keeping the economy afloat.