Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
6 - 12 April 2000
Issue No. 476
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Front Page

Who won what?

By Dina Ezzat

"Egypt has been the meeting place for different cultures for two millennia. Cairo is the only city in the world which can claim it played host to Moses, to the Prophet and also to the Saviour. There could not be a venue with better credentials to be the place where our two continents come together," British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook told the Africa-Europe summit.

Cook was not alone in acknowledging Egypt's key regional role. Similar, even warmer, remarks were made most heads of delegations. Both Africans and Europeans agreed that Egypt is the "perfect linchpin" for their two continents. The Egyptian government, in particular, was complimented for hosting the gathering so efficiently.

Beyond the pleasantries that are the standard reverence of visiting delegates to their host country, Egypt won more than just accolades.

"For us, this conference was yet another opportunity to show the world that we are perfectly capable of safely hosting and properly organising such a summit," commented one Egyptian who played a leading role in the preparations.

But the meeting was never merely an exercise in public relations or an opportunity to see images from the Cairo International Conference Centre broadcast on a myriad satellite television channels. Even more importantly, it was an opportunity to showcase Egypt's talents as a world political go-between.

The conference demonstrated that Cairo's political role would not retreat or decline once the Arab-Israeli peace process has reached fruition. Egypt not only brought together the North and South for talks about a better common future. Top Egyptian officials were also involved in several diplomatic exercises on the fringes of the summit. Thus Cairo could be observed encouraging Algerian-Moroccan reconciliation, supporting Sudan's national unity and peace with its neighbours, and negotiating for Libya's re-integration into the international community. Cairo was also active in addressing the need to banish weapons of mass destruction from the Middle East.

Commented one senior diplomatic source, "We are involved in the North-South dialogue, peace-making in the Horn of Africa and conducting a healthy dialogue among the Mediterranean countries."

Morocco was another country that reaped clear political gains from the summit. For the first time in years, Moroccans had ample opportunity to expound their case against the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), at a gathering in which the OAU itself was actively involved.

"When Morocco left the OAU, it did so because the organisation broke its own charter, which stipulates that membership should only be open to full-fledged states that have complete sovereignty over their territories," commented Mohamed bin Eissa, the Moroccan foreign minister. "So we left to protest the violation of this charter."

The Moroccan official was alluding to the 1984 OAU recognition of the self-styled Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), located in the disputed Western Sahara, an area that is largely controlled by Rabat. The SADR is recognised, and sometimes backed, by Algeria, which is the reason for the on-going Algerian-Moroccan dispute.

Rabat only agreed to take part in the summit after the Saharan Republic decided to absent itself. Also paving the way for Morocco's participation was an OAU decision to entitle the meeting the "Africa-Europe Summit, under the aegis of the Organisation of African Unity and the European Union", instead of the OAU-EU summit.

Yet even the SADR had something to gain from the summit, even if it did not take part itself. Asked if Algeria might reconsider its support for the SADR, President Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika told a news conference that his country would continue to support the right of peoples throughout the world to self-determination. He added that since the OAU -- of which he is currently chairman -- recognises the SADR, he has to respect the organisation's decision.

But it was Libya and Sudan that seemed to make maximum gains from participating in the summit. "These are two countries that are coming back to the world community after years of isolation and international accusations of abetting terrorism," commented one OAU source. "Yet today, the Sudanese and Libyan presidents are meeting with the EU leaders to discuss future political and economic cooperation."

On the economic front, 33 of the African countries represented emerged as clear winners. These are the most indebted countries which won debt forgiveness from Germany, France, and Morocco.

Meanwhile, the Europeans also had something to be proud of. Several African leaders, including the current chairman of the OAU, said that the legacy of European colonialism in Africa should now be consigned to the past. This is perhaps the first time that such an ethical pardon was freely offered. "We are not here to remake the past, but we are here to make the future," Bouteflika said. However, this is perhaps merely a sign that the African leaders have accepted once and for all that assistance is the most they can hope for from Europe by way of compensation for its past actions.

The issue of removing the land mines buried by European states in North African countries during World War II is a good example of the limits to cooperation. The EU countries, particularly those who shoulder the historic responsibility, continue to make it clear that they will only provide technical and financial assistance for demining, and will not assume responsibility for the whole operation.

So, the result might seem to have been a draw -- though not nil-nil. After all, Africans and Europeans came to Cairo not to do battle, but to coordinate their future common efforts.

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