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EGYPT: Trouble in Tunisia dominates Arab Economic Summit

January 19, 2011 |  1:18 pm

Arab Economic SummitThe uprising in Tunisia and the toppling of President Zine al Abidine ben Ali dominated the annual Arab Economic Summit, which opened Wednesday in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el Sheikh amid fears that unrest could ripple across the Middle East.

Arab League chief Amr Moussa said the economic, poverty and development problems in Tunisia echo throughout the region: "The recent events in Tunisia are an example of big social shocks that many Arab societies are exposed to," Moussa said. "It is on everyone's mind that the Arab soul is broken by poverty, unemployment and a general slide in indicators."

There are countries "disintegrating, people rising up and rights being lost while the Arab citizen wonders if there is an Arab system that would deal with these events effectively and efficiently,” said Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheik Mohammad Sabah al Salem al Sabah.  

He added: "The Arab citizen might wonder if such a system would identify the human suffering, in their living conditions, health, education and future and provide a better and dignified life."

Such comments -- along with what is expected to be a $2-billion pledge to improve the region's economies -- were an indication that Arab capitals worried the furor in Tunisia had the potential to sweep the region following years of simmering anger over unemployment, human-rights abuses and widespread frustrations over tough living conditions.

Those ingredients led to two suicide attempts in the Tunisian region of Sidi Bouzid last month, sparking nationwide rioting that led Ben Ali to flee the North African country. Copycats of the Sidi Bouzid self-immolations rapidly spread to other countries, with several attempts reported this week in Egypt, Algeria and Mauritania.

Though some Arab leaders fear a fate similar to that of Ben Ali, Moussa stressed that the "priority of economic and social cooperation" between Arab countries "is no longer just about the progress of our people, but a basic demand of Arab national security."

Kuwait's emir, Sheik Sabah al Ahmed al Jabbar al Sabah, called on Tunisia's political powers to unite and end the ongoing disagreements over forming a transitional government: "We look forward to efforts toward solidarity in Tunisia to overcome this particular stage and reach a national consensus that will achieve stability and security," Sheik Jabbar said.

Tunisia's interim Prime Minister, Mohamed Ghannouchi, announced a national unity government on Tuesday. Nonetheless, four former opposition figures already quit the new Cabinet, protesting the inclusion of six ministers who had served under Ben Ali.

Differences over the formation of a temporary administration have been met with daily protests by Tunisians, many of whom want to see the end of any symbols of Ben Ali's reign.

-- Amro Hassan and Jeffrey Fleishman in Cairo

Photo: Arab leaders during an Arab summit in 2007. Credit: Associated Press

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