- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 19, 2004

TUNIS, Tunisia — The Arab League is faced this weekend with a Tunisian proposal to streamline its structure and respond to demands for greater democracy in a changing world.

A summit meeting of the 22-nation grouping in the Tunisian capital starting Saturday is also an effort to close Arab ranks after a rift that developed when Tunisia called off the 16th summit in April.

Tunisian officials said at the time that a preliminary foreign ministers conference had been unable to reach a consensus on crucial issues and that debate by the heads of state would have been pointless.

An intense diplomatic effort by the league’s secretary-general, Amr Moussa, and Tunisian Foreign Minister Habib Ben Yahia has since ascertained that the new summit has a better chance of success, despite turmoil in the Middle East.

The meeting comes against a background of the paralysis of the Middle Eastern peace process, the continued Iraqi rebel resistance to the U.S.-led coalition forces, and Israeli repression in the Gaza Strip in response to Palestinian attacks.

Terrorism is spreading throughout the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia and Syria among the latest targets.

Arab diplomats report that U.S. prestige in the Arab world is plummeting, mainly because of Washington’s unequivocal support of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and apparent U.S. inability to restore peace in Iraq.

Some Arab officials say the United States is losing credibility as a peace broker in the area. No other candidate appears likely to succeed where Washington has stumbled, and periodic indications of the European Union’s willingness to try to pacify the explosive region have received little response.

The Tunis summit is not expected to develop any realistic formula, besides once again condemning Israel and proclaiming support of “the Arab cause.”

The Tunisian hosts, who are spending about $20 million for the venture, nevertheless hope the league can adopt some concrete measures. Since its formation in 1945, the Arab League has been hardly more than a periodic talking shop.

Among the documents presented to the summit are Tunisian drafts of a “Treaty of Alliance and Solidarity” of the Arab world and the “Future of the Arab Region.”

Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali says the league should take determined steps “to appear in the eyes of the world as an active regional community, capable of adjusting to the changes on the international scene.”

His proposals include a formal pledge on an improvement of human rights in Arab countries, a call for democratic reforms and a greater role for women.

Tunisia has been a pioneer of women’s rights since the 1950s. Today, 53 percent of university students are women and women hold 51 percent of jobs in the medical profession.

Some Arab leaders, particularly from the Persian Gulf area, have eschewed calls for women’s advancement as well as Western appeals for greater democracy.

Tunisia’s own democratic credentials often have been challenged, mainly because of Mr. Ben Ali’s overwhelming electoral victories and strict control of the press.

The Tunisian president has said that “democracy is not a uniform” and should be tailored to each country’s needs and conditions.

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