International Papers

A Breath of Hot Air in Tunis

Middle Eastern papers assess the Arab League summit.

“Another charade has drawn to a close,” was the way Lebanon’s English-language Daily Star described the end of the Arab League summit held this past weekend in Tunis (after the initial gathering scheduled for late March was rescheduled). The summit’s very mixed results made headlines in most Arabic newspapers.

Arab summits are often either momentous or spectacularly mediocre. The Tunis summit, by issuing grand principles with little likelihood of implementation, leaned toward the latter, even though it addressed meaningful topics such as the war in Iraq, the Palestinian problem, and American reform plans for the Middle East. A headline in Egypt’s official Al-Ahram offered a useful potpourri of the summit’s final decisions: “The Tunis declaration calls for an end to the occupation of Iraq, international protection for the Palestinians … a commitment to peace and justice … solidarity with Syria as it confronts American sanctions … and calls for an international conference to rid the region of weapons of mass destruction.”

In an unsigned editorial, the Daily Star acidly observed: “As the curtain falls on the latest … Arab League spectacle, the people of the Arab world wonder at their leaders’ capacity for shifting hot air and not much else.” Kuwait’s Al-Rai al-Aam tried to put a brighter sheen on things by focusing, in one of its headlines, on the summit’s acceptance of “important documents for the reform of the Arab condition, and that of the League.” It was referring to, among other things, a general paper on political and economic reform to which the participants had agreed. While the newspaper saw this as an achievement, it also underlined that Arab leaders were unenthusiastic about reform and quoted a skeptical Arab diplomat as saying: “Their position is: ‘Yes to reform, but not during my mandate.’”

Reform has taken on a central role in Arab affairs since the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the leaking of an American reform project for “the Greater Middle East” to the London-based Al-Hayat three months ago. The plan (which is still being amended and will be presented by the Bush administration to the G-8 summit in June) has provoked alarm in the Arab world, where the fear is that Washington seeks to impose change on the region. In March, the summit was postponed partly because Arab leaders couldn’t agree on how to address the American initiative. This time divisions were again apparent, as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak (like Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi) left the summit early in a huff. According to the London-based Al-Sharq al-Awsat, he was unhappy that an Egyptian proposal to proactively address the U.S. plan had been sidelined. While the dispute looked parochial, it revealed just how difficult unrepresentative Arab regimes find it to mouth even ill-defined acknowledgment of the need to reform.

The Arab leaders had little specific to offer Iraq, which can hardly be said of Iraqi Islamists in Fallujah, who, according to a front-page story in Al-Hayat (taken from the wire services), have started implementing Islamic law in the town. Yesterday, the Islamists, members of a group known as the “Mujahideen of Fallujah”, whipped and paraded individuals caught selling or owning alcohol. Even some Iraqi police officers were involved. An inhabitant in the town, who insisted that the zealots were all Fallujans, defended their actions: “The mujahideen liberated the city from the Americans, and it’s their right to preserve its reputation … they were the first to come to its defense, and we’re all with them.”

In Lebanon’s Al-Safir (under a photograph of George W. Bush’s face bloodied by a bicycle fall), the paper’s veteran Washington correspondent, Hisham Melhem, did a curtain raiser on the U.S. president’s speech today at the Army War College in Pennsylvania to clarify Washington’s policies in Iraq.  For Bush, the speech will aim to “contain the significant damage” done to America’s reputation and “to convince Americans that the future in Iraq is better than what has been suggested by the recent bloody fighting and the [Abu Ghraib] scandals.” Melhem also noted that tonight’s speech would be the first of six on Iraq before the end of June, when the United States is scheduled to hand sovereignty over to an Iraqi authority.

According to London’s Daily Telegraph, the administration may also bolster its public relations campaign by circulating this week “a draft United Nations resolution for Iraq after the occupation, [concluding] talks on the shape of a new government and [shoring] up the international coalition.” The paper pointed to an embarrassing British Foreign Office memo written last week that blamed the United States for damaging the Coalition’s credibility because of its abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib and its proclivity for employing too much force. Significantly, the memo added that the Iraqi government should have “an effective veto over major operations [after the June 30 handover of authority] … We still need to tie the US down to language that reflects these principles.”