Al-Ahram Weekly Online   8 - 14 April 2004
Issue No. 685
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Summit rescue mission

Dina Ezzat follows the upbeat Egyptian and Arab diplomacy that is trying to save the Arab summit

photo: Ahmed Afifi Click to view caption
President Hosni Mubarak during talks with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad on Monday photo: Ahmed Afifi

It has been a week of hard work in Cairo and other Arab capitals. President Hosni Mubarak and top Arab officials, including Arab League Secretary- General Amr Moussa, are intensifying efforts to secure the convocation of the Arab summit some time in May. Mubarak has received the presidents of Syria and Sudan and phoned several other Arab leaders. Moussa has been in Tunis, Libya, Mauritania and Morocco for meetings with the heads of states there. In Morocco, he also met with Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

Such marathon diplomacy is focussed on one goal: convening the Arab summit.

"If the summit does not convene before the month of June then it will probably not convene at all because June to August is the summer holiday and September is a busy time with the UN General Assembly. So we have to make sure that the summit happens within the coming few weeks," said one Egyptian diplomatic source.

So far, no conclusion has been reached. A considerable majority of Arab heads of state say they are in favour of having the summit in Egypt, either at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo or elsewhere in the country, should Cairo prove too difficult a venue. Other Arab countries, mostly of the Maghreb, say they are comfortable with a summit in Egypt but would prefer if it took place in Tunis which is due to take over the presidency of the summit.

According to Arab League rules, the summit should convene annually during March under a rotating chairmanship drawn of the 22 member states. This year, Tunis was supposed to host the summit on 29-30 March. However, in an abrupt move, Tunisian President Zein Al-Abidine Bin Ali called off the summit on 27 March as Arab foreign ministers were finalising their preparations. The move, which preempted the handover of the summit presidency from Bahrain to Tunis, was described by Arab diplomats and commentators as a potentially fatal blow to the organisation coming at a time when the Arab world faces serious difficulties in Palestine and Iraq, in addition to the challenge of domestic and Arab League reform.

"Tunis promised an exceptional summit that would open the doors towards the reform of an old and decaying Arab League and launch a serious political and socio-economic reform movement in the entire Arab world. But then it decided it never wanted the summit," one senior Jordanian diplomat commented.

Responding to the Tunisian unilateral decision, President Mubarak offered to host the summit in Egypt. The Tunisians did not take this offer well. They have been creating difficulties by insisting that the summit take place in their country. This week, Egypt and the Arab League have been attempting to contain Tunisian sensitivity to the Egyptian offer of an alternative venue.

"It is not in the interest of anyone to get into a fight over the venue of the summit because that means that the summit will not convene and the Arab world will have more confrontations than it already does," said one Egyptian diplomatic source. He added President Mubarak had no intention of triggering a debate about the venue when he offered to host the summit in Egypt. "The charter of the Arab League stipulates that the summit should take place at the headquarters of the league or in the country that is to chair the summit. So President Mubarak was not trying to impose an Egyptian presence but rather to save the summit."

In press statements following summit talks with both Syrian and Sudanese presidents in Cairo on Monday, Mubarak was explicit about Egypt's flexibility. "The venue of the Arab summit is up to the Arab leaders to decide," he said. Stressing that his offer to host the summit was only meant as a rescue gesture, Mubarak said that he did not mind the convocation of the summit anywhere, be it Egypt, Tunis, "or even on the moon".

Meanwhile, in Tunis on Friday, during talks with Tunisian President Bin Ali, Arab League Secretary- General Moussa conveyed a clear message from Cairo: Egypt is not interested in causing Tunis any diplomatic embarrassment, but only helping the Tunisian government contain a serious Arab diplomatic crisis.

According to Tunisian and Arab League sources, Moussa made it clear during his talks with Bin Ali that Cairo is willing to discuss any details with Tunis to help arrange a time and venue for the summit. According to Arab League and Egyptian sources, the fact that Egypt has made a point of sending this message through the secretary-general of the Arab League is a clear indication that Cairo wants to help save the summit within the umbrella of the organisation, not outside it.

"The message we are clearly relaying to our brothers in Tunis is that Egypt is absolutely keen on its bilateral relations with Tunis and that we are not at all seeking to hijack the summit," an Egyptian diplomatic source in Tunis told Al-Ahram Weekly late last week. He added, "Egypt's diplomatic efforts in relation to the issue of the summit... have nothing to do with Egyptian-Tunisian relations at all. Egypt never questioned Tunis's ability to host [the summit]."

Despite the fact that a similar message was relayed by Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher to his Tunisian counterpart Al-Habib Bin Yehia, these reassurances have not yet produced the required results, Egyptian and Arab diplomatic sources say. They argue that Tunis still wants more before it approves the transfer to Egypt.

There are several reasons for this. Firstly, Tunis does not want the summit to be held in Sharm El- Sheikh. The Red Sea resort was the venue for last year's summit following the request of the Bahraini chairman who sought to avoid having Arab leaders in Bahrain just before the US invasion of Iraq when it was playing host to a large US military presence. Bahrain's failure either to hold the summit itself or to ensure that it was held at the league's headquarters in Cairo, was criticised by Arab peoples. "The Tunisian leadership cannot afford to be viewed in this negative light," one Arab official said. He added, "so if the summit is going to take place in Egypt it has to be at the headquarters of the Arab League in Cairo, even if this is going to take the Egyptians an extraordinary effort to organise and secure this event."

Secondly, Tunis wants a proper face-saving exit. Egyptian and other Arab diplomats acknowledge that while it is true that the Tunisian government was never keen to host the summit in the first place and only offered under pressure from the secretary- general, it cannot afford to give the impression to the Tunisian public that it simply wanted to get out of hosting it.

Some Arab capitals have been suggesting that a meeting between President Mubarak and President Bin Ali is essential to settle the matter, and that if Mubarak breaks his journey from the US in Tunis later this month to meet Bin Ali a joint declaration to hold the summit in Cairo could be forthcoming.

Whatever the official line, Tunisia's reluctance to host the summit was partly due to concerns about having to adopt resolutions critical of US Middle East policy at a time when Tunis was trying to strengthen its relationship with Washington. Promises offered by key Arab leaders that this would not be the case were seriously challenged by the assassination of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas, a few days before the summit, and the escalation of violence between Iraqis and US occupation forces.

At the same time, Tunis had little confidence that it could convince the most traditional Arab states to approve the roster of social reforms, especially women's rights, despite this being an opportunity to re- invent itself as a champion of Arab reform, which would have served its economic interests with the European Union.

Finally, Tunis was worried about the potentially low turnout of Arab leaders. "The worst part was the decision of the King of Bahrain Hamad Bin Issa to absent himself from the summit and to delegate his foreign minister," said an Arab diplomat based in Tunis.

The general consensus is that if Egypt can offer the Tunisians a way out without losing face, it might save the day. Where the summit is held is, of course, another matter. Last week most Arab diplomats were putting their money on Sharm El-Sheikh in the first week of May. But increasingly diplomats are favouring Cairo during the second week. However, if no face-saving exit is found, some fear arguments will proliferate among Arab countries, and the summit might not be held this year or, indeed, ever.

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