Tunisian President Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali's last-minute decision to postpone the Arab League summit scheduled to open in Tunis on March 29 caused a diplomatic earthquake. It called the Arab order into question and shattered the hopes of Arab people for joint Arab action on several critical issues.
The summit's agenda included two major, longstanding Arab concerns—the Palestinian predicament under Israeli occupation and the stalled peace process—and two newer issues imposed on Arab countries by U.S. policy, the occupation of Iraq and the American-proposed Greater Middle East Initiative (GMEI) to bring democracy and development to the region. Together, these four items converged into a fifth concern—Arab humiliation and offended national pride. Optimists expected the Tunis summit to address all five concerns together, thereby placing Arab countries on the path to salvation. The postponement of the summit was a real blow to those who held such high hopes.
For pessimists who had already lost faith in Arab leadership and believed that the ruling elites lacked the will and the capacity to address important issues for fear of losing their privileges, the collapse of the summit was no surprise and was received with a we-told-you-so shrug.
Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa and the foreign ministers already at work on draft resolutions for the summit were astounded by Ben Ali's announcement. So was the Tunisian foreign minister, Habib Ben Yahia, as reported by other participants. Some Arab leaders were undoubtedly relieved by the Tunisian decision, which may have saved them from an embarrassing show of disunity on reform and other issues. But the majority, led by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, called for reconvening the summit as soon as possible. Agreement on a new place and time has proved difficult, however. Many favor a meeting in Cairo, the Arab League headquarters, in advance of the June 2004 G-8 summit where the United States is expected to unveil the GMEI. Ben Ali, blamed by most for the collapse, insisted that the rescheduled meeting take place in Tunis, since he is the chairman of the Arab summit in the coming year. In a sign of new splintering among Arab states, he received the backing of other Maghreb countries that rarely align with one another. Consequently, the summit venue has not been chosen yet, although participants agreed that the meeting should be held before June.
The postponement caused a storm of speculation about Ben Ali's reasons for taking such a drastic decision. It also prompted debate about whether the issue of political reform should have been on the agenda at all—reform being seen by some as a domestic concern and not as a pan-Arab issue requiring a collective decision.
The Tunisian government's official explanation for the postponement referred vaguely to "the discrepancies among the position of Arab governments over substantive issues and options relating to the yearnings of Arab citizens and the future of the Arab nation, especially those related to modernization, democratic reform in the Arab countries, protection of human rights, empowerment of women, the role of civil society, as well as the restructuring of the Arab League and the promotion of further joint Arab action."
This statement merely fueled speculation, particularly since the issues it listed as the source of "discrepancies" were already included in the draft resolutions. One theory circulating in the region attributes the cancellation to an American conspiracy, implemented by Tunisia, to destroy the Arab League, in order to replace it with a new regional structure that includes Israel. A second explanation is that Ben Ali and other leaders opposed to democratic reform chose to scuttle the summit in order to avoid U.S. pressure for reform, by buying time until the American elections in November. President George W. Bush, they believe, will be defeated and the new president will not continue Bush's democracy promotion policy.
A third interpretation is that Ben Ali postponed the summit out of wounded pride after King Hamad of Bahrain, the present chairman of the Arab summit, announced he would not attend. This would have forced Ben Ali to accept the chairmanship for the next year not from King Hamad, but from Bahrain's foreign minister. Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah's earlier announcement that he would not attend and the possibility that other heads of state would follow suit compounded the diplomatic offense. This speculation sounds plausible because the success of the country hosting an Arab summit is typically judged by the rank of the attendees rather than by the substance of the resolutions.
Like many developments in Arab politics, the true reasons behind the summit's cancellation remain obscure. The continuing speculation only diverts attention from the real problems: the fragility and weakness of the Arab order denoted by the collapse of the summit and the unwillingness of Arab leaders to take the plunge and set out to reform the Arab world.
Adnan Abu Odeh is a former Jordanian ambassador to the United Nations, information minister and chief of the Royal Court. He is a member of the board of trustees of the International Crisis Group.