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Middle East: Egypt Seeks To Rescue Canceled Arab League Summit

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Egypt has offered to host the Arab League summit meeting that was to have been held today and tomorrow in Tunis. In a surprise last-minute announcement, Tunisia said it was postponing the summit indefinitely because a preparatory ministerial meeting could not agree on an agenda. RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke reports on the latest developments.

Prague, 29 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Plans are advancing today for an Arab League meeting in Egypt following the surprise cancellation of a summit by the original host, Tunisia.

The two-day summit for the Arab League's 22 member states was to have opened today, but the Tunisian government announced 27 March that it was postponing the meeting because preparatory talks at the foreign minister level had failed to agree on an agenda.

This is the first time in the Arab League's 57-year history that a host country has unilaterally canceled a summit.

The Egyptians called the Tunisian action "astonishing." A presidential statement from Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said his country is ready to organize a replacement summit as soon as Arab League members can agree on a date.

"I think the delay put the Palestinian people in jeopardy" -- Palestinian Foreign Affairs Minister Shaath
In conversation with other Arab leaders, Mubarak suggested 16 April for the meeting, which would be held at the Arab League's headquarters in Cairo. Planning was reported to be going forward, with members apparently ready to accept the Egyptian alternative.

Esmat Abdel Maguid, former Arab League secretary-general, said Tunisia must accept blame for the present state of confusion. "It was certainly a regrettable decision, but certainly the Arab League [and] the Arab countries will find a solution," Abdel Maguid said. "This was a very surprising decision by the government of Tunisia, which had hosted the meeting and invited the foreign ministers to prepare for the summit and then suddenly the decision was taken to cancel the summit. This was a very surprising decision for us."

Referring to the postponement, the Tunisian state news agency said Tunis insisted that the summit endorse democracy and reject what it called "extremism, fanaticism, violence, and terrorism."

Some analysts said that, in making this call, Tunisian President Zine el-Abdine Ben Ali was following a line suggested by the United States, which recently put forward a plan to foster modernization and democracy in the Middle East. Ben Ali was in the United States last month and held talks with President George W. Bush.

Daniel Neep, a senior analyst in London with the Royal United Services Institute, said that given the current climate in U.S.-Arab relations, any suggestions from Washington are likely to be greeted with skepticism. "There is a great deal of difficulty in anything being explicitly associated with the United States at the moment, even if it is something the Arab governments themselves would approve of," Neep said. "So I certainly think that has complicated the situation."

Neep went on to say that Washington's plan for an overhaul of political and economic life in the region has -- for the moment, at least -- fallen on deaf ears. The plan has come under Arab criticism as representing outside interference in the region's affairs, while not addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"There is a difficulty at the moment for the Arab states to endorse any line which the United States is explicitly pushing, not only in the field of terrorism, but also in the field of democratic reform," Neep said. "I think the way the U.S. has revealed its 'Greater Middle East Initiative' has actually caused it a great deal of damage in the region, because it means that many of the reforms which these countries are carrying through are jeopardized because they are seen as being undertaken at the impetus of the U.S."

However, Arab League spokesman Hosam Zaki rejected the notion that the summit was canceled because contrary pressures from the United States and those Arab countries reluctant to undertake reforms would have made agreement impossible.

Apart from the themes of modernization and terrorism, the Tunis summit was to have discussed the Iraq war and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, following Israel's killing of Hamas spiritual leader Shaykh Ahmed Yassin last week. The Arab League had been hoping to adopt a unified line on both issues.

One of the delegates most upset by the summit delay was Palestinian Foreign Affairs Minister Nabil Shaath. "I think the delay put the Palestinian people in jeopardy, and I would like to see the Arab leaders implement what the foreign ministers took as decisions and recommendations and not really delay until a new summit is set," Shaath said.

Tunisia, meanwhile, is protesting a change of venue for the summit. Mubarak was quoted as saying he has no objections if Arab presidents want to meet again in Tunisia. "We're not imposing anything on anyone," he said. "We just want to salvage the situation."

(RFE/RL freelance correspondent Peyman Pejman contributed to this article.)