Arab Summit Postponed – Participants were facing tough challenges

was not surprised that the Arab summit meeting (set for Monday March 29) in Tunis was postponed.

This is because Arab leaders are facing some very tough challenges.

The daunting list of issues includes: response to the Arab street’s outrage following the assassination of Sheikh Yassin; the recent Alexandria Declaration which calls for political and economic reform; dealing with the perennial American dogma of "Israel-can-do-no-wrong" in a presidential election year; continuing response to an American president already under political siege for ignoring pre-9/11 intelligence warnings and for lying (and joking about) Iraq’s phantom weapons of mass destruction.

That’s a tall order for any single political leader, or group of political minds.

Determining what to do about Israel’s targeted assassination of Yassin is tough, especially in the light of world leaders’ (except the U.S. president’s) condemnation, and America’s additional use of the veto to block a UN Security Council resolution even when it is condemning all acts of violence by Israel and also by the Palestinians.

Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa issued a statement condemning the Hamas founder’s assassination as "an atrocious act of state terrorism," ” a violation of international law," and "a provocative move with ill intentions." He also sent condolences to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

The Tunis summit’s agenda was originally expected to focus on issues such as: plans to reform the Arab League; Arab reactions to U.S. and European proposals for reform in the Arab world; developments in Iraq; the peace process in Sudan; Arab economic cooperation; and the continuing situation of Palestine.

But Arab leaders cannot ignore the historic Alexandria Declaration either, drafted at a meeting of Arab world civil institutions, held March 12 to 14, specifically to draft a working plan for reform.

Emphasizing that reform is both necessary and urgent, that it must stem from within Arab societies, and that it should address the aspirations of the Arab peoples, the participants discussed political, economic, social and cultural dimensions, noting the necessity of also addressing the distinctiveness of each Arab country, while at the same time accommodating their common denominators and thus laying the foundations for inter-Arab cooperation.

Participants noted that individual national reforms should not be undertaken at the expense of equally pressing regional issues. At the forefront of these is the realization of a just solution to the Palestinian question in accordance with international resolutions stipulating the establishment of two independent, sovereign states, the liberation of all occupied Arab territories, and the recognition of the independence and territorial integrity of Iraq.

The Declaration also noted that the Middle East must be declared a region free of weapons of mass destruction, and that all inter-regional conflicts must be resolved by peaceful means, without foreign intervention.

Combating terrorism and religious fanaticism in every form is necessary, the Declaration said, as well as enhancing the values of tolerance and cross-cultural cooperation.

Reform, whether direct or indirect, is a responsibility that must be shouldered by governments, civil society institutions, and the private sector, its aim being the establishment or restoration of real and authentic democratic systems throughout the Arab world.

As representatives of civil society institutions in the Arab world, the participants noted that by democratic systems they mean full, integrated democracy, the essence of which is the same everywhere, although its implementation may vary according to each country’s cultural and historical context.

Democracy, as defined by the participants, is a political system according to which the value of freedom reigns supreme, thus guaranteeing real sovereignty and the rule of the people by the people, based on political pluralism, the rotation of power, and respect for citizens’ rights.

These rights include the right to freedom of thought, organization and expression for all, exercised under the umbrella of competent political systems led by elected legislative institutions, an independent judiciary, a government that is subject to both constitutional and public accountability, as well as by political parties that are representative of all intellectual and ideological orientations.

There can be no true democracy, the participants noted, without freedom of expression in all its forms; primary among them is freedom of the press and all genres of the media. They also stressed the necessity of free, regular, national and local elections to guarantee the rotation of power, and the importance of decentralization on the local level, thus enhancing self-expression and unleashing culturally specific creative potential among local communities.

The participants further stressed the close link between the utmost transparency in public life, the elimination of corruption, and the establishment of good governance based on respect for human rights enshrined in the international conventions safeguarding the rights of women, children and minorities, and protecting the basic rights of defendants before the courts, as well as all the democratic norms practiced by democratically advanced societies. It is necessary that these attributes be translated into tangible policies to be adopted within the framework of a partnership between governments and civil society institutions.

This is exactly how the leaders of the Arab world must respond to the Alexandria Declaration in order to arrive at a realistic and effective executive plan for its implementation. If they do not, their summit would have been a waste of time, no matter how many other pressing issues were there.