The Arab League will start final preparations for the annual Arab Summit In the third week of March, with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi scheduled to inaugurate and head the summit, which he will chair for a year.
Invitations to Arab League member states are expected to go out in the early days of the month, with top envoys of the president scheduled to head to leading Arab partners, especially Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states.
“We are expecting a high profile attendance from across the Arab countries; yes, Gulf Cooperation Council members included,” said a source at the Egyptian foreign ministry.
The source said he expected the leaders of four out of the six GCC member states to be personally present in the Arab Summit. These “should include Saudi Arabia. Let us see how things will develop by that time, but this seems to be the situation now.”
The source spoke to Ahram Online following a fast containment of a short moment of diplomatic tension between Egypt and its usual allies in the GCC.
The tension arose following an exchange of angry words between the permanent representative of Egypt to the Arab League and the secretary general of the GCC over Cairo’s assumed view on the role of Qatar in relation to the terror attacks Egypt has been facing.
This was the second source of recent Egypt-GCC unease, following a leak — which Cairo said is fabricated — of a conversation of top Egyptian state officials regarding "inevitable" GCC financial assistance to Egypt.
“When all is said and done, the common interests of Egypt and the GCC are much larger than any misunderstandings, or a mistake here or there," said a concerned diplomatic source.
"We know, on both sides, that our cooperation is strategic in the sense that neither side can forgo the support of the other, especially at this particularly challenging moment on the Arab scene, with so much political turmoil and a serious threat from radical militant groups at the doorstep of our country, and leading GCC states as well."
According to the viewpoint of Cairo, the Arab Summit, which should convene some 10 days following the Egypt Economic Development Conference that will be held from 13-15 March, with expected high-profile GCC participation also, will be another opportunity for Cairo to affirm its “successful resumption of its regional role.”
Chairing the Arab Summit for 12 months leaves Egypt effectively at the head of every Arab working group that should attend to the region's many serious political challenges.
According to foreign ministry sources, there are three key issues that Egypt will want to highlight during the Arab Summit: Libya, which is proving to be a serious concern vis-a-vis Egypt’s national security interests; Syria, another national security priority for Egypt; and radical Islamism.
Effectively, these are related from Cairo's point of view. Egypt has been advocating a tough stance against all Islamist groups (not excluding the Muslim Brotherhood and its branches in many Arab countries). Ending the political conflict in Libya and Syria, Cairo argues, is dependent on the same.
In both cases, Egypt supports calls for a military-secular regime. Informed sources say that Cairo has been increasingly promoting a political deal for Syria that would not exclude the regime of Bashar Al-Assad, who is accused by a influential segment of the Syrian opposition of having slaughtered over 200,000 Syrians.
As for Libya, Egypt is lobbying support for the promotion of a "troika" that would bring together the internationally recognised Tobruk-based parliament with leading tribal leaders that supported the rule of ousted leader Muammar Gaddafi, and pro-West retired Libyan army general Khalifa Haftar.
Along with these two schemes, Egypt is hoping to see the Arab Summit reach an agreement on coordinating Arab intelligence and security/military action, to face up to the challenge of radical Islamist groups, militants and others, including the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Two Cairo-based Arab diplomats told Ahram Online that there is no disagreement (“none whatsoever,” one stated) on Egypt’s call for stability in countries facing political and economic hiccups, along with terrorism.
What needs to be discussed, however, during the weeks leading up to the Arab Summit, are details of a consensual approach to resolving the political crises in Libya and Syria, given the lack of agreement among Arab states on the chances of including Al-Assad in a political future scheme for Syria, or the ability of Haftar and former supporters of Gaddafi to help bring stability to Libya.
Egyptian diplomats insist that Cairo is not without support on both files, and that this space of support could widen.
Egypt might have an easier diplomatic mission in reaching a consensual concept of a collective Arab anti-terror stance, particularly in relation to cutting off the resources and recruitment of radical militant groups like ISIL and Al-Nusra Front.
Egypt's relatively "wide definition" of terror groups, said one Cairo-based Arab ambassador who spoke to Ahram Online, might not find equally wide support, but this would not block what he expected to be “a firm resolution to be adopted by the Arab Summit on the war on terror" that is a concern to "all Arab countries and that would require much cooperation.”
Meanwhile, Egypt is hoping to use the Arab Summit to reposition its traditional role in relation to the Palestinian issue. A concerned Egyptian diplomat said there is not much room for diplomatic action on long-frozen Palestinian-Israeli negotiations.
“Israel is not willing to negotiate and the Americans are not willing to mediate, but we have to come up with a resolution that would do two things: underline the role of the Palestinian Authority [and not Hamas] in representing the collective Palestinian voice, and empahsising the Arab Peace Initiative as the basis for any settlement that should eventually be reached,” he said.
Is there a possibility that the Arab Summit might have to be rescheduled, given the situations in Yemen and Lebanon (both countries are without a president), conflicting political powers in Libya, and Saudi internal preoccupations?
Answered the foreign ministry source: “We are working for a summit that is scheduled for March, and the ultimate decision would be made by the (Egyptian) president upon consultation with Arab leaders. But it is surely in the interest of Egypt to have the summit as scheduled and on time.”
The convocation of the summit on schedule, he added, would send a positive message about stability in Egypt, and "This is what we need, to attract more investment.”
“Also, it is certainly important for Arab leaders to examine the situation across the Arab world,” he added.
Will the summit convene in Cairo, or go to Sharm El-Sheikh — which will host the EEDC, mid-March?
The same source answered that “These details will have to be decided in March, upon the advice of the security bodies.”
The last high-level Arab congregation to have been hosted in Sharm El-Sheikh was the Arab Economic Summit, only days after the beginning of Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution, and days before the 25 January Revolution in Egypt.
On 8 March, as Arab foreign ministers meet for the regular Spring meeting, Egypt will have an opportunity to open consultations on these and other matters.