Tunisia Casts Shadow Over Arab Summit Meeting

Thursday, 20 January 2011 13:20 By Michael Slackman and Mona el Naggar, The New York Times News Service | Report | name.

Cairo - Arab leaders, meeting for the first time since the public revolt in Tunisia toppled its autocratic president, heard one of their own, a consummate insider, warn that "the Arab soul is broken by poverty, unemployment and general recession."

Amr Moussa, the secretary general of the Arab League and a former foreign minister in Egypt, opened an economic summit meeting in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheik with a sobering assessment not just of circumstances in the tumultuous North African nation of Tunisia, but across a region that stretches from Morocco through the Persian Gulf.

"The Tunisian revolution is not far from us," Mr. Moussa said Wednesday in his opening remarks, despite the efforts of Egyptian organizers to avoid discussion of Tunisia. "The Arab citizen entered an unprecedented state of anger and frustration."

This is a second economic summit meeting, a follow-up to one held in Kuwait in 2009 and intended to encourage Arab leaders to set aside political differences to address the social and economic problems plaguing their societies. But like the Kuwait summit meeting, held during the Israeli invasion of Gaza, this gathering was overshadowed by a crisis that also seemed to underscore the impotence of such gatherings, rather than the collective strength of the region, political analysts said.

"Arab politics, Arab policies, Arab administration, Arab bureaucracy has been too stagnant," said Shafeeq Ghabra, a political science professor at Kuwait University. "It will produce some results, but none of the results produced will be enough to deal with the level of desperation engulfing the Arab world and the Arab peoples. It will be too little, too late."

Several participants also noted that none of the initiatives agreed to during the last meeting in Kuwait had yet been put in place. That is often the case with Arab summit meetings, where bold talk is followed up with inaction.

But this time, in the shadow of the Tunisian uprising that forced from office one of their own, President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, there was at least talk of following through on promises. The summit members agreed to a $2 billion program to help create jobs and bolster the weakest economies. The job creation program was first discussed at the last meeting in Kuwait.

The participants also emphasized the need to help expand and empower the private sector.

This discussion, of jobs and youth and poverty, appeared to reflect a significant change in the meeting's agenda to reflect the anxiety the leadership felt in the wake of the Tunisian revolt. Before the meeting, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry sent out a statement identifying the three top issues on the agenda — which did not include unemployment or poverty eradication. Instead it focused more on specific projects and regional cooperation.

Hisham Kassem, an Egyptian newspaper publisher and longtime human rights advocate, said of the Arab leaders, "They are definitely scared, but it's typical how they always try to use these summits in order to secure their regimes as opposed to develop their countries." Mr. Kassem added, "It is definitely a wake-up call, and they're definitely terrified and they're finally grasping."

The Egyptian foreign minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, tried over the days leading up to the summit meeting to steer attention away from Tunisia, insisting that the gathering was not about politics, but economics. But that effort was complicated in Egypt because in the course of two days, three men imitated the self-immolation that set off the riots in Tunisia, forcing comparison between conditions in the two countries. A fourth man intent on self-immolation was stopped by security forces on Tuesday.

Yet it seemed clear even before the first participant arrived that it was not possible to hold an economic summit meeting in the shadow of the Tunisia affair without noting the connection between politics, economics, and the overthrow of a president.

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Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton foreshadowed that theme when she addressed Arab leaders a week earlier in Doha, Qatar, and warned that in "too many places, in too many ways, the region's foundations are sinking into the sand."

Mr. Moussa's opening remarks suggested that the Arab leadership — or at least some of that leadership — concluded that the greatest threat to their ability to retain power was economic development, opportunity and jobs. President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt tailored his remarks to address the anger and despair in his nation with flowery prose.

"The Arab youth are our most valuable possession from wealth and resources, they represent more than 25 percent of our populations, and through their ideas and dreams we make the future of our nation and make its marks and build its foundations," he said in remarks broadcast around Egypt on state television.

But summit meetings are notorious for exactly those kinds of pronouncements, political analysts said, which tend to spread cynicism rather than calm.

"I think Arab leadership is shocked and is trying to come to grips with what has happened," said Mr. Ghabra, from Kuwait. "Authoritarianism is the mode by which Arab regimes have dealt with the Arab people. Today, as a result of the Tunisian rebellion, the wall of fear in the Arab populations has been broken and has been penetrated for the first time in decades."

But while that message appears to have gotten through to the region's leaders, Egypt's foreign minister, Mr. Gheit, suggested that he, at least, did not accept the assessment of economic crisis. In a curious statement for the Egyptian foreign minister, he first told a reporter that he should travel to the Persian Gulf to see how Arab countries are developing.

But then he added: "A lot of times we criticize ourselves and say there is failure and there is a lack of opportunities. But there is also success, and progress. For example in Egypt, there are 60 million people who use cellphones. I don't think we can say a society that has 60 out of 80 million people using cellphones can be called a failed and incapable society."

An employee of The New York Times contributed reporting from Sharm el Sheik. 

Last modified on Thursday, 20 January 2011 13:29