Al-Ahram Weekly Online   26 March - 1 April 2009
Issue No. 940
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Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Selective disagreements

The Arab summit in Qatar promises to be controversial, Dina Ezzat reports

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Mubarak receiveing Al-Bashir in Cairo yesterday

When Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir arrived in Cairo yesterday noon for talks with President Hosni Mubarak it was his second overseas trip since the arrest warrant indicting him for war crimes and crimes against humanity was issued on 4 March by the International Criminal Court (ICC). The message Al-Bashir is sending by making consecutive trips to Asmara and Cairo is, his aides say, one of "defiance" against the ICC warrant.

Official Sudanese statements suggest Al-Bashir's defiance may well extend to the annual Arab summit in Doha on 30 March despite orchestrated appeals by the masses and an unprecedented religious edict seeking to ban a head of state from undertaking an overseas mission.

Speaking in Khartoum on Tuesday Qatari Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Hammad Bin Jassim said Qatar still welcomes Al-Bashir's participation in the annual congregation despite the pressures put on the host and next chair of the Arab summit to either turn him over to the ICC or not to receive him.

On Wednesday Sudanese sources in Cairo said a final decision on Al-Bashir's participation would be made during the talks between the Sudanese president and President Mubarak. Intelligence and political assurances from Cairo are likely to be instrumental in the decision as to whether or not Al-Bashir attends.

Following the Mubarak-Bashir summit at the presidential headquarters in Heliopolis Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit told reporters that Egypt "supports the participation of President Al-Bashir in the Arab summit" but that it was up to the Sudanese to decide whether or not he goes. Sudanese Foreign Minister Deng Alor said that his government "is currently examining the situation and is going to conclude an assessment on the matter and present it to the president shortly."

Two days before arriving in Egypt Al-Bashir was in the Eritrean capital. But according to Alor "there is a big difference between visiting Egypt or Eritrea and going to Qatar" which is not a direct neighbour of Sudan.

Whether or not Al-Bashir appears in Doha the ICC arrest warrant, and possible political and legal ways to circumvent it, are bound to feature on the agenda of the two-day summit. The summit, sources say, is set to adopt a resolution appealing for a suspension of the arrest warrant to allow time for peace talks between the Khartoum regime and the Darfur rebels to come to a successful end.

"There is a clear Arab and African stance that does not accept the way the ICC has handled the issue of President Al-Bashir," Abul-Gheit said on Monday.

The Doha summit will also pledge humanitarian aid for the refugees of Darfur and political support for Sudan. In press statements on Wednesday Abul-Gheit said that Egypt is working closely, through the Red Crescent and through government channels, to coordinate a relief operation to meet the humanitarian needs of refugees "following the termination of the operation of some refugee organisations". This "should prevent anyone from alleging there is a humanitarian crisis in Darfur".

The Arab League, whose secretary-general failed to persuade Khartoum to revoke its decision to expel 13 international humanitarian agencies from Sudan earlier this month, is also working on a plan of action for humanitarian assistance in Darfur.

The summit, however, is unlikely to escape being the scene of squabbles over managing the reconciliation process between the Darfur leaders and Al-Bashir's regime. While Qatar is determined to pursue earlier efforts to conclude a comprehensive peace deal on that front other Arab countries -- especially Egypt -- are determined to deny Doha control over the issue. As a result the summit may not issue a resolution with clear language on the Darfur-Khartoum reconciliation process.

The anticipated Egyptian-Qatari confrontation in Doha next week will not be confined to the management of the Darfur peace process. The diplomatic tug-of-war between the two countries that has continued for 12 months, especially over Palestinian reconciliation, is likely to cast a shadow across the Doha summit. With President Mubarak unlikely -- so far -- to attend, sending the foreign, or at best, prime minister, Qatar may not be so keen to avoid some squabbling over the text of resolutions to be adopted by the summit on the Palestinian issue. Sources say that Qatar has already suggested to several Arab countries that there is a need to break the "Egyptian monopoly" over Palestinian reconciliation. While this Qatari effort may not succeed -- as some Qatari officials acknowledge -- it would certainly impact on already tense Egyptian-Qatari relations.

The invitation that, according to Iranian sources, Qatar has extended to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to attend and maybe address the summit has already offended several Arab capitals, Cairo included, which blame Iran for undermining Arab interests in order to pursue its political confrontation with the West.

The Doha summit is bound to face difficulties in addressing Iranian-Arab relations. The split between Arab states seeking to isolate Iran and those that wish to engage it remains deep. In the words of Egyptian officials, it is the most crucial point of difference between Cairo and Damascus.

The proposal Arab League Secretary- General Amr Moussa has been floating to initiate dialogue between the Arab League and Iran -- which is supported by several Arab countries, especially Iraq -- is unlikely to be picked up by the summit. A resolution, however, is set to be adopted calling on Iran to pursue neighbourly relations with Arab states.

"The differences marking relations in the Arab world over the past year, since Syria took the presidency of the Arab summit in March 2008, are still very present despite many calls for, and attempts at, reconciliation," commented a senior Arab diplomat who asked for his name to be withheld. And, he added, it is unlikely that the Doha summit offers any serious prospect for reconciliation among Arab foes.

The fact that Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad will end his presidency of the summit next month without having visited a number of major Arab capitals, Cairo included, is for Arab diplomats a clear sign that reconciliation remains out of reach.

Saudi Monarch Abdullah is set, according to diplomatic sources in Cairo, to pursue the reconciliation mission he launched in January. There are no real expectations, though, that his efforts will produce sustainable results.

"There might be some positive statements and some handshakes but no serious reconciliation," opined the senior Arab diplomat.

The 22 delegations of the Arab countries attending the Doha summit will, however, be keen to avoid confrontation on some issues. The fate of the Arab Peace Initiative is not going to be subject to much discussion. Qatar is not going to re- submit proposals to freeze the initiative adopted by Arab leaders at the Beirut summit in 2002. The Doha summit is expected to stick to the position outlined by the Saudi monarch, the original architect of the proposal, who has warned that the "Arab peace initiative will not remain on the table indefinitely."

"The fact of the matter is that there is not much talk on peace with Israel now. With the new Israeli government there will be no serious peace process," said an Egyptian diplomat. "However, now we have a new US administration that we want to support a fair peace settlement we should not be pulling an initiative that has been there for seven years already."

Arab foreign ministers arrive in Doha to prepare for the summit tomorrow. It is due to be followed by an Arab-Latin summit, also in Doha, on 1 April. (see p.7)

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