Trying to salvage the summit [Archives:2004/728/Opinion]

April 12 2004

By Peter Willems
Yemen Times Staff

Although efforts have been made to get the Arab summit bank on track, obstacles have delayed agreement on rescheduling the summit.
Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa told reporters in Cairo last Thursday that Arab leaders have agreed that holding a summit is important and that it should be held in late April or early May.
“Everyone is agreed on this, the holding of a summit is a necessity,” said Moussa.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who offered to host the summit in Egypt soon after Tunisia cancelled the summit just before it was scheduled to begin last Monday, met with Arab leaders at Sharm Al-Sheikh last week. The leaders included Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz, King Hamad of Bahrain and King Abdullah II of Jordan.
Egyptian officials claim that 10 out of 22 Arab countries are backing Mubarak's plan to hold the summit in Egypt. In addition to Egypt, they mentioned Saudi Arabia, Syria, Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan, Yemen, the Palestinians, the United Arab Emirates and Iraq.
But Tunisian Foreign Minister Habib Ben Yahya announced last week that President Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali still wants to host the summit, claiming that Tunisia still has the right to do so. Some members of the Arab League are showing support of Tunisia's position. Moroccan Foreign Minister Mohammed Benaissa has agreed that the summit should be held in Tunisia. He said last week that “as long as Tunisia has not given up its right to host the summit, frankly I don't see how the summit can be transferred.”
Some say that the argument over choosing between Egypt and Tunisia as the location of the summit may create a division between eastern and western Arab states.
But Yemeni Foreign Minister Abu Bakr Al-Qirbi denies that a division between eastern and western Arab countries is growing. He told Egypt's state-run Voice of the Arabs radio station, “The postponement of the summit has not divided the Arabs into Eastern and Western blocs. The Arab world will remain united.”
Moussa said it is important for Arab nations “to deal with the current situation and calm down, then start to prepare for a successful meeting”. He added that after that “we will reach an agreement over a place.”
According to Moussa, there is also a disagreement between Arab countries on how to address potential political reforms in the Middle East. He said the disagreement is on “the extent that reforms will go to and our position regarding this or that reform initiative that we have received from abroad.”
Moussa was referring to the US Greater Middle East Initiative that urges Arab nations to promote democracy, human rights, and the status of women and encourages the upgrading of educational systems and economic liberalization.
Most Arab countries have resisted outside interference in their domestic policies and the idea of importing a western plan. Many are pushing for homegrown democratic reform.
Many analysts have judged Yemen as the leader in the Arab world in developing full-fledged democracy. President Ali Abdullah Saleh supports political reform, but argues that the changes should come from within the Arab countries. In a speech he delivered during a demonstration in Sana'a against the killing of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin a few weeks ago, he said that there should be no pressure on Arab countries because “these reforms should come from within”.
Two days before the summit was scheduled to begin last week, the Tunisian Government decided to postpone the summit, claiming there were differences over proposals to promote democracy in the Middle East.
Arabs throughout the Middle East have been showing criticism of the Arab League after the summit was cancelled. Many were expecting Arab leaders to stand up against Israel following the assassination of Yassin and deal with the US occupation of Iraq.
“Looking back over the years, people in the Arab world can see that Arab Summits rarely found solutions or implemented them,” said a political analyst in Yemen. “And the timing of canceling this summit was bad. After the assassination of Sheikh Yassin, Arabs wanted to see something happen. But now their faith in the Arab League is deteriorating.”
The Yemeni Government planned to present its own peace initiative for the Middle East at the summit in Tunisia. 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. 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 a constitution, elections would be held in a year and Iraqi forces 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 told Yemen Times last week that ministers in the preliminary meetings showed interest in Yemen's initiative, especially since the Yemeni plan is based on the Beirut proposal.
To continue to salvage the summit, Moussa traveled to Tunisia and held talks with Ben Ali. He also has plans to go to Algeria, Morocco and possibly Libya and Mauritania.