- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 30, 2004

TUNIS, Tunisia — Tunisia launched a diplomatic offensive yesterday to convince fellow Arabs that the cancellation of a planned summit here was essential to “shake up” the Arab world.

After a strategy meeting with President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Foreign Minister Habib ben Yahya said he would work for an Arab consensus on such issues as democracy, human rights and peaceful dialogue with Israel before another summit is convened.

The Tunisians used the term “postponement” rather than cancellation of the meeting of the 22-member Arab League that had been scheduled to end yesterday. This nuance means that if a meeting is called again, it still will be considered the 59-year-old league’s 16th summit and Tunisia will retain chairmanship.

Mr. ben Yahya’s efforts are expected to run into strong opposition, particularly from traditionalist Arab countries of the Persian Gulf, blamed by Tunisia for opposition to modern-age reforms.

Despite the abrupt and unexpected scrapping of the summit late Saturday, the Tunisian government insists that if the Arabs agree on the Tunis-promoted agenda, another meeting can be held there. Egypt has suggested Cairo as the next venue after President Hosni Mubarak’s visit to Washington in mid-April.

Cairo is the permanent seat of the Arab League. But a senior Tunisian official said that “agreeing on concepts is much more important than the venue.”

Mr. Mubarak is scheduled to discuss the summit plans with Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and King Abdullah of Jordan in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheik today, reports from Cairo said.

The Arab League’s Egyptian secretary-general, Amr Moussa, plans to visit Arab capitals, including Tunis, this week.

Yesterday, Egyptian and Syrian foreign ministers said the differences over the summit agenda and reforms were narrowing.

The senior official in Tunis said Tunisia “remains committed to the ideas it tries to promote,” including a profound reform of the league’s structures, adoption of the concept of democracy, and peaceful means of solving inter-Arab problems and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Without agreement on such principles, officials here said, the league will remain an ineffective body “mired in stale slogans and repetitive phrases ignored by the outside world.”

Mr. ben Yahya’s effort appears to be backed by Tunisia’s North African partners in the Union of Greater Maghreb as well as Oman. Strong opposition has come from Egypt and the Gulf countries.

Meanwhile, the abrupt decision to postpone the summit — after elaborate preparations at a considerable cost — has won the support of Tunisians.

Conversations with Tunisians showed that the president’s prestige has grown and that the rift in the Arab world is being considered inevitable.

Delaying the summit “is not synonymous with failure but a sign of maturity and of a sense of responsibility,” wrote La Presse newspaper on Monday.

The independent Le Temps lamented “another missed opportunity for Arab countries,” while defending Tunisia’s role. The North African country “did everything to help the summit succeed,” the newspaper said.

The average Tunisian resents the wealth of the Gulf oil kingdoms and sultanates, feels little affinity with their way of life and prefers bonds with southern European countries.

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