Summit's Collapse Leaves Arab Leaders in DisarrayTUNIS, March 28 — Arab governments were in disarray on Sunday after the Arab League summit meeting, set to grapple with vital regional issues like democratic reform, Arab-Israeli bloodshed and the American occupation of Iraq, was abruptly called off just before it was to open Monday.
The exact reason is a matter of some dispute, but all sides viewed the meeting's collapse — even as some heads of state were on their way — as an embarrassment. It was a stark public admission that the commitment to change voiced by Arab leaders risks becoming just more words.
The Arab League is infamous for its fractious gatherings, but even its most experienced bureaucrats described the cancellation as extraordinary. Some commentators thought the collapse inevitable from the start. The very idea of reform remains too divisive, and many nations' governments have yet to decide how to deal themselves with issues like elections.
"Every Arab country has its own deep problems, so I don't believe you can find a general answer," said Khairallah Khairallah, a political commentator and former editor in chief of Al Hayat, a London-based Arabic newspaper.
There were still attempts on Sunday to salvage the collective effort, however. The office of Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak, issued a statement expressing his "surprise and regret" over the cancellation. President Mubarak offered to have the gathering in Egypt, arguing that differences of opinion were hardly sufficient cause to abort the meeting.
Foreign ministers said they were exploring possible dates in April. Tunisia still objected, however, saying the problem was the issues, not the setting.
Given the the American invasion of Iraq, and spiral of violence in the region, including terrorist bomb attacks from Casablanca to Riyadh, there had been some expectation that Arab leaders might commit themselves to change.
Certainly the Bush administration had hoped for some kind of broad endorsement of reform that might demonstrate that its decision to overthrow Saddam Hussein was having a positive echo.
Senior officials and analysts here said events in Tunis, while not without precedent, represented in stark colors the Arab world's inability to cope with American efforts to redraw the region's political map.
"You feel they are completely lost," said Mr. Khairallah, the political commentator. "The Arab League is finally feeling the impact of the fall of Baghdad. It took them a whole year."
A reluctance to take the first step toward reform was evident in the two days of preparatory talks about the agenda, which bogged down in details like how to present Arab culture at the Frankfurt book fair next fall, said several foreign ministers who took part.
Meanwhile, crucial issues like a joint statement of principles on political change and the league's reformulated position toward peace with Israel had barely been discussed and remained unresolved, they said.
Late Saturday night, as the 22 foreign ministers were reaching a strained if amicable consensus on those major points, Tunisia pulled the plug, announcing that it would not preside over a gathering willing to make what it called only a tepid commitment to reform.
"There was real horror on their faces," said Nabil Shaath, the Palestinian foreign minister, describing the mood as Tunisia announced its decision. "They felt that despite all their disagreements, this summit was important."
Another foreign minister described the rush to grab cellphones to call home and tell the various kings, presidents and princes due to start arriving Sunday to stay home. Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, the Libyan leader, was reportedly on his way to Tunis, while the Iraqi delegation, led by a Shiite Muslim cleric in a remarkable break from the past, had journeyed along Iraq's treacherous roads as far as Kuwait.
On the crucial issue of political reform, the general consensus had divided into two broad groups, participants said. One group was made up of those who wanted to resist what was seen as a fiat from the Bush administration for the Arab League to push for sweeping changes. The other group included those who said the call for change was not a Washington monopoly and that a wider demand for greater democracy had to be addressed.
Saudi Arabia, Syria and Egypt, the leaders of the former group, had hammered out a joint call for political reform, insisting it was not being foisted on them by outsiders and emphasizing that each country would develop according to its own cultural norms.
But smaller states, including Tunisia, resented being dictated to by their larger neighbors, several foreign ministers said. The smaller states proposed making the general principles more specific.
Tunisia, angry that its proposal was being shunted aside and worried that more and more leaders, including Crown Prince Abdullah, Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler, and most of his Persian Gulf neighbors were not coming, decided to call off the summit meeting, they said.
Tunisian officials denied acting in pique, saying they merely wanted the summit meeting's final communiqué to be something of substance. Three hundred fifty million Arabs want a sense that the repression that scars their region is ending, the Tunisians maintained.
"The Arab world will not advance unless it faces to this reality," said an Arab diplomat familiar with the Tunisian assessment. "It's not just the paper you field; it's the attitude."
Many Arab observers considered that stance to be remarkable, as Tunisia's president, Zine el-Abidine ben Ali, suppresses dissent and shows every sign of remaining president for life. On the other hand, Tunisia does have some of the region's most advanced laws for women's equality and has been making changes to modernize its schools for a decade.
The differences were not just over reform, however. The Jordanians and the Palestinians presented a joint proposal to try to reinvigorate the Arab-Israeli peace negotiations despite Israel's killing last week of Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas. Syria and Lebanon objected, arguing that Arab public opinion would not abide such an overture to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel at a time when he seemed bent on more violence.
In addition, some of the tension stemmed from the perception of many Arab foreign ministers that Amr Moussa, the league's Egyptian secretary general, was being overly aggressive in pushing changes in the organization itself, and specifically in enhancing his role.
Consensus was reached fairly easily on Iraq, participants said. The foreign ministers had decided to endorse evolving self-rule there and to condemn attacks against civilians. The Iraqi delegation was disappointed at the summit meeting's cancellation; its members had hoped to return home with a clear Arab endorsement for the political steps it is taking.
Arab foreign ministers lined up Sunday to criticize Tunisia, and there were broad hints from analysts that its president must have come back from a visit to Washington earlier this year with specific instructions to wreck the summit meeting.
But other officials suggested that the problem lay elsewhere, that in failing to address the larger aspirations of the Arab world, the area's governments were giving yet another opening to extremists.
"To fail to even hold a meeting is a disaster, taking into consideration all the challenges of the region," said Hoshar Zubairy, the Iraqi foreign minister. "This encourages extremism, when people see that even the formal Arab system is not functioning, not operating. The sense of frustration will only deepen."