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Tunisians Support Delay in Arab League Summit - 2004-03-29

Many Tunisians say they fully support the government's decision to postpone the Arab League summit because, when it came to the issue of reform, other Arab countries were unwilling to follow Tunisia's lead in key areas of democracy and civil society. Residents in the capital, Tunis, say that even if the summit is rescheduled and takes place in Egypt, it is doomed to fail.

The Arab League summit should have begun, but instead hotel workers stood outside in the soft rain, saying goodbye to the remaining visitors who were leaving town after the summit was suddenly canceled Saturday.

Officials declined to say how much money was lost by the cancellation. But as Tunis said farewell to the meeting - and the revenue it would have brought -residents say that no matter what, they are behind the government's decision.

A 32-year-old law student at Tunis University, Hatem Smiri, says things have to change. He said that to organize a summit is to want to have a successful summit, and the Tunisian government recognized early that other countries did not have the same goals in mind.

In Tunisia, we are very advanced, he says.

Sami, a taxi driver who has been picking up passengers along Tunis's well-cared-for streets for 12 years, agreed. He said that here, women enjoy equal rights and education is a priority. He said that an Arab country should take care of its people, and he said that democracy in other Arab countries is not the same as in Tunisia. Some Arab leaders stay in power for years on end, he said, but at least in Tunisia, they hold regular elections.

The Tunisian president, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, has been elected to three consecutive terms with a near-100 percent of the vote, and has held office for 17 years.

Sami says he does not know exactly what kind of democracy the United States has because he has never been there. But he says he believes all the Tunisian people are behind their government because they are proud of who they are. He repeats the president's popular catch-phrase, "we cannot live without dignity."

Indeed, many critics have accused the Tunisian government of trying to avoid being seen as failure by hosting a summit that would result in empty resolutions, or worse, the public bickering of years past. But the law student, Mr. Smiri, says several leaders had backed out, making it clear that the summit would go nowhere.

He said that to change is to pay. Look at Iraq, he said. Iraq is changing, and Iraq is paying. For that reason, he said, many Tunisians believe that no matter where or when the next summit is held, no solid progress will occur.