Arab summit in Baghdad victim to winds of change

Dina Ezzat, Wednesday 2 Mar 2011

March's Arab League summit in Baghdad under the same shadow of doubt as the future of many of its member states

arab league
Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa speaks with Iraq's Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari (Photo: Reuters)

"Baghdad is waiting; all preparations are ready and we want to have the summit on time." This was the brief but firm statement an Arab diplomat quoted Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari as making before a close session of Arab foreign ministers that was inaugurated Wednesday noon at the Cairo headquarters of the Arab League.

According to sources at the meeting, the fact that two Arab presidents have already toppled and that two more are in the process of being toppled seemed to count for little to the top Iraqi diplomat. So did the fact that the Iraqi government is under serious political pressure from Iraqi demonstrators.

The vision from Baghdad, Iraqi and other Arab diplomats say, is that the absence of Tunisia's former president Zein Al-Abdine Ben Ali, who was toppled on 15 January, and that of Hosni Mubarak, toppled a little under a month later, would not hamper the participation of the Tunisian and Egyptian delegations in the summit.

"The Tunisian and Egyptian diplomacies are operating – almost fully," said an Iraqi diplomat.

As for the possible absence of Yemeni President Ali Abdallah Saleh, who faces serious demonstrations, the same diplomat said "So what? If we can imagine a summit without Mubarak you can easily imagine a summit without Saleh – and there will always be a Yemeni delegation."

Nobody seems to be anticipating the fall of Saleh before the end of the month. It is Libyan Colonel Muammar Gaddafi who has entered in a firm and irreversible countdown, Arab and Western diplomats agree.

The absence of Gaddafi from the Arab summit that is still scheduled to open and close on 29 March means more than the absence of a unique sense of political humor and some unpredictable remarks that the Libyan colonel always brought to the table of Arab leaders.

Gaddafi is the chair of the current Arab summit after taking it over last March, and was supposed to hand it  to Iraqi President Jalal Talabani in Baghdad.

Today, informed western diplomats suggest that Gaddafi will not be leaving Libya - neither to Baghdad nor to any other place. "We think it might even be very difficult for him to flee the country if he wished to," said a senior European official on condition of anonymity.

According to independent Libyan sources, Gaddafi's fate is either to be killed or commit suicide; and it is a matter of sooner rather than later.  

"This is not the issue," said the same Iraqi diplomat. He added that there is a growing consensus now within the Arab world to acknowledge a diplomatic representation of the "Libyan people and its transitional Council operating from Benghazi."

The Libyan diplomatic mission in Cairo has already severed relations with the regime of Gaddafi. It insisted in a statement issued a few days ago that it represents the Libyan people and not the Libyan leader who is in the process of being deposed.

Arab leaders, for the most part, seem willing to accept the presence of a leading figure of this mission to be present in Baghdad to hand over the summit to Talabani.

This issue has not gained consensus yet, Arab League sources warn. In the words of one league diplomat, "This would amount to an early acknowledgment of the end of the regime of Gaddafi; this is a major precedent and one that maybe some Arab countries would not be ready for".

Ultimately, Zebarin asked Arab foreign ministers to agree on an alternative date or to come to Baghdad on 29 March.

"If you don’t have an alternative date we will hold the summit on 29 March and we don’t care who will attend," Zebari reportedly told the ministerial meeting.

Ultimately a resolution was adopted to the effect that the summit will be held by 15 May – maximum.

This date is the last day for the mandate of the current Arab League Secretary General, Amr Moussa.

"Still we are not sure it will be held on 15 May; some Arab countries are still reluctant to have the summit in this state of wide political fluidity," said another Iraqi diplomat.  He added that it "unrealistic to have the summit before the situation settles in the Arab world – Iraq included."

Iraq is expecting widespread demonstrations on Friday calling for broad political reforms.

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