Summit in 2 weeks [Archives:2004/725/Front Page]

April 1 2004

By Peter Willems
A day after the Tunisian government postponed the Arab Summit that was scheduled to begin last Monday, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak agreed during a telephone conversation that it could be rescheduled in mid-April and held in Cairo.
“We are in the middle of discussions to decide on a date that the summit will be held in Cairo,” said Yemeni Foreign Minister Abu Bakr Al-Qirbi on Monday. The Foreign Minister, who participated in the preliminary meetings of foreign ministers before the summit was scheduled to take place, also added, “I am optimistic and am sure we will decide on a date.”
Late Saturday, the Tunisian government decided to postpone the summit, claiming there were differences over proposals to promote democracy in the Middle East.
Many officials in Tunis preparing for the summit showed surprise and frustration after the delay was announced.
Al-Qirbi said he and the other foreign ministers who met in Tunis thought that the postponement was “very disappointing.”
Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa also said, “Certainly this is not one of our best moments. The Arab system is not in good shape.”
But on Sunday, the Egyptian Government made an announcement that it was willing to host an Arab summit. Mubarak expressed in a statement “surprise and regret” regarding the decision to postpone the summit, but his country welcomed a new meeting “at the earliest time that can be agreed on.”
It is reported that Saleh called Mubarak the same day and emphasized the need to hold the summit at the headquarters of the Arab League in Cairo. Saleh also said that the meeting of the leaders of the 22-member organization was essential because of challenges facing the Arab world.
Moussa is expected to start visiting Arab countries this week to discuss plans for a summit in the near future.
But there are questions as to why the summit was called off. The statement from the Tunisian Government said, “It became clear that there was a variance of positions on roposals related to fundamental issues on modernization, democratic reform, human rights, the rights of women and the role of civil society.”
Some say that the foreign ministers in their meetings failed to reach an agreement on reform proposals that were presented by five Arab nations – Yemen, Jordan, Qatar, Tunisia and Egypt.
But a number of delegates who were in Tunis accompanying foreign ministers to prepare for the summit claim that there were little or no arguments during their meetings and their talks had gone well.
According to Al-Qirbi, there was an overall consensus among the ministers on reforms. “The ministers agreed on a declaration of reforms, and our preparations would have been completed within a couple of hours at the time the summit was postponed,” said Al-Qirbi.
Some delegates who were in Tunis said Tunisia may have postponed the summit because it was disappointed that some Arab leaders decided not to attend.
Abdel Bari Atwan, Editor of the pan-Arab, London-based Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper, said, “Tunisia id not want to shoulder the responsibility of holding a low-level summit.”
Leaders of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman and the United Arab Emirates decided to send a relatively low-level delegation instead of attending the summit in Tunis. Diplomats have said that some Arab leaders were concerned that the summit would not be able to meet the demands of the majority of the Arab people for decisions on major issues in the region, so they decided not to go to the summit.
The Yemeni Government put together its own peace initiative for the Middle East that it planned to present at the summit in Tunis. Yemen's “roadmap” for peace includes adding the Arab league to the international quartet of the European Union, Russia, United Nations and the United States that is attempting to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict using its own roadmap. It also suggests the use of an international force to protect Palestinians, a non-violence pledge from both sides and the creation of a Palestinian state in the territories the Jewish state occupied in the 1967 war.
For war-torn Iraq, the Yemeni proposal calls for the Arab League, the United Nations and the US-led coalition to set up a committee to work on building security using international forces under UN command. An Iraqi sub-committee would draw up a constitution, elections would be held in a year and the Iraqi Army would be fully established in two years.
The Arab land-for-peace plan, which won support at the 2002 Arab Summit in Beirut, was expected to be re-launched at the summit in Tunis. But Al-Qirbi said that ministers in the preliminary meetings showed interest in Yemen's initiative.
“During our meetings in Tunis, many countries welcomed the Yemeni initiative,” said Al-Qirbi. “It does not conflict with the proposal put forth in Beirut. The Beirut proposal is the basis of our initiative.”
Many analysts have judged Yemen as the leader in the Arab world in developing full-fledged democracy. But the Yemeni Government has joined the majority of Arab nations in criticizing US pressure for political reform in the Arab world, including the US government's Greater Middle East Initiative launched last month.
Saleh has pushed for political reform, but argues that the changes should originate within the Arab countries. In a speech he delivered during a demonstration in Sana'a against the killing of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin a couple of weeks ago, he said that there should be no pressure on Arab countries because “these reforms should come from within.”
Besides political reform, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the US-led occupation of Iraq were expected to be discussed at the summit.
But doubts are now surfacing as to whether the Arab League can make concrete decisions and take important steps to deal with the challenges in the region. Analysts are becoming skeptical, citing that results from Arab Summits have been minimal in the past.
According to John R. Bradley, former Managing Editor of the Jeddah-based Arab News and author of the forthcoming book “Saudi Arabia Exposed: Princes, Paupers and Puritans in the Wahhabi Kingdom,” Arab Summits have been far from profitable. He added, “They are also viewed by many Arabs as a scandalous waste of money, when so many of them are living in abject poverty.”
A Yemeni businessman said, “I appreciate the effort of Yemen and Egypt to keep the summit alive, and I appreciate Yemen going forward with an active peace initiative. But I believe that when a large group of leaders meet, it will be impossible for something useful to gain full support because they will never come together and agree on something important.”
The Tunisian Government has objected to another summit taking place in Egypt. According to a statement from the Tunisian Foreign Minister, a summit in Cairo would only divert attention away from the issues that caused the cancellation of the summit.