Tunisia looms large over Arab economic summit
AFP , Wednesday 19 Jan 2011
Arab leaders met in Egypt on Wednesday to discuss economic cooperation as the Arab world feels the aftershocks of an uprising in Tunisia that emboldened the region's harried dissidents.
The summit marks the first gathering of Arab leaders since a popular uprising sparked by the self-immolation of an unemployed man forced veteran Tunisian leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to flee his country on Friday.
The incident also sparked a rash of copycat attempted public suicides by self-immolation in Arab countries by protesters.
Arab leaders, many of whom rule over populations that share similar grievances to Tunisia's protesters, have denied any similarity with Tunisia but the comparison came up in the opening speeches of the summit in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.
Arab League chief Amr Mussa said in his speech that the economic grievances that triggered the Tunisian uprising hit close to the summit's discussion.
"The revolution that happened in Tunisia is not far from the subject of this summit," he said. "And it is not far from what is going through the minds of many...the Arab soul is broken by poverty and unemployment."
Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, the country's ruler for 30 years, made no reference to the Tunisian revolt, but said tackling development and economic cooperation have become national security priorities.
"We have realised that the priority of economic cooperation and development is no longer just about progress for our people...but a basic demand of Arab national security," he said.
Kuwait's leader Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmed Jaber said he hoped Tunisians would stand together, as the country has continued to see deadly protests since Ben Ali's departure.
"Kuwait has followed with deep interest the situation in Tunisia" he said, stressing that his country "respects the choices of the brotherly Tunisian people."
"We look to the efforts by our brothers (in Tunisia) to stand together in order to overcome this sensitive phase... and reach a national consensus that will achieve peace and security."
The summit also takes place as early results indicate most southern Sudanese voted for independence in a referendum this month that is expected to partition Africa's largest country.
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir arrived in Sharm el-Sheikh on Tuesday to attend the summit.
The meeting is expected to implement the resolutions of its predecessor, which was held in Kuwait in 2009, and which included setting up a $2 billion fund to finance small and medium sized businesses.
In a region where rulers often assume power through coups or inheritance, the Tunisian uprising was unusual in that a highly autocratic ruler was forced out by mass protests.
Tunisian Foreign Minister Kamel Morjane, who briefed his counterparts in Sharm el-Sheikh on developments in his country, told reporters at a press conference that the protests were fuelled by political and economic grievances.
Delegates from one of the countries complained to AFP that they expected the summit's pledges to lead to nowhere, as previous promises had.
But the economic aspect of the Tunisian revolt, which is mirrored in other countries in the region, may add to the urgency of taking measures to alleviate poverty in the region.