Egypt cancels MiddleEast reform conference [Archives:2005/820/Local News]

February 28 2005

Egypt announced last Saturday that it called off the US-backed conference for political reforms in the Middle East originally scheduled to be held on March 3.

Ahmed Abu Al-Gheit, Egyptian Foreign Minister, said that the forum is delayed indefinitely. “The conference is postponed and a new date will be set after consultations with the countries invited,” said Al-Gheit in a statement.

Al-Gheit said some Arab countries called on delaying the conference until after the next Arab summit is held in Algeria on March 22 and 23. Gheit did not mention the countries that asked for the delay.

Diplomats have said that the cancellation of the conference was the result of tension that has recently emerged between the United States and Egypt.

On January 29, Ayman Nur, head of opposition party Al-Ghad, was arrested while being investigated for fraud and is being detained for 45 days. Nur has denied the allegations.

During Al-Gheit's visit to the US capital, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said last Tuesday that there is a “very strong concern” about Nur's arrest. Rice, who was scheduled to attend the conference in March, did not visit Egypt during her first official tour of the Middle East earlier this month.

“Reforms in the Middle East being pushed along by the United States is a very sensitive issue,” said a Yemeni political analyst. “Something that causes friction can stop everything.”

Soon after the Bush administration released the Greater Middle East Initiative (GMEI) to encourage reform a year ago, the reaction from the region stressed that changes must be carried out inside the Middle East countries instead of influence from elsewhere. Due to opposition, the GMEI was renamed as the Broader Middle East and North Africa initiative and was backed by The Group of Eight industrialized nations (G8) at a meeting in Seal Island, Georgia, last June which included that reforms should come from within.

In the final statement of the Forum for the Future held last December in Rabat, Morocco, it said that reform should be developed inside each country with “the sovereign right of each country within its national unity and territorial integrity, to freely develop its own democratic, political and socio-cultural system.”

Yemen, along with twenty other countries, was invited to attend the conference in March. Those expected to participate included the Group of Eight industrialized nations and a number of countries from the Middle East. The conference planned to have participants discuss the future of political, economic and social reforms in the region.

Early last month, the US House of Representatives passed a resolution that commended reforms in Yemen, citing efforts made in political, educational and economic improvements. International observers judged the parliamentary elections in 2003 as free and fair, and the Congressional Resolution offered assistance to Yemen to continue to develop democracy and freedom.

Some believe, however, that the treatment of journalists over the last several months will hinder progress in Yemen heading towards developing a fully-fledged democracy.

The Center for Training and Protection of Journalists' Freedom recently reported that there were more than 120 violations against journalists in 2004, including jail sentences and harassment, which is the most in one year since the country was unified in 1990. It said that the verdicts issued in court against journalists jumped 80 per cent.

Although it is still ranked above a number of other Arab states, such as Saudi Arabia, Syria, Libya, Tunisia, Iraq and Bahrain, Reporters Without Borders dropped Yemen from 103 to 136 between 2002 and 2004 in its press freedom index.

“Arresting journalists and closing newspapers is serious harm to democracy,” said Majid Al-Fahed, Executive Director of Civic Democratic Initiatives Support Foundation in Yemen. “There is a strong relationship between freedom of expression and democracy.”

Some say that pressure on the press picked up last September when Abdul Karim Al-Khaiwani, Editor of the opposition weekly Al-Shoura (The Consultation), was sentenced to one year in prison and the newspaper was suspended for six months.

In December, up to seven journalists were sentenced to jail. Abdul Karim Sabra, Editor of the weekly Al-Hurriya (The Freedom), and one of the newspaper's reporters Abdul Qawi Al-Qabati, were given two-year prison sentences and the weekly newspaper was shut down for one year. Other journalists were handed prison sentences between three and six months.