Leaders of the 22 nations in the Arab League are to meet Monday and Tuesday in Tunis at a particularly difficult time in the Middle East. Experts say there is little prospect of the Arab leaders reaching significant agreement on most of the significant issues facing them.
Arab foreign ministers in Tunis for preliminary sessions this week woke up Monday to the news that the co-founder of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, had been killed by an Israeli airstrike. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is always on the Arab League agenda, but the killing and the increased tensions that followed creates additional pressure and urgency.
But over the decades the 59-year-old organization has found it difficult to agree on common positions, or to take concerted action.
And former Egyptian ambassador Abdullah el-Ashaal says that will likely be true again, for reasons related to the Arab leaders' relationships with their own people.
"Normally the summit is composed of wise people," he said. "They are politicians. They know to whom they are talking and if they talk [on some] higher lever this is going to tear through the streets of the Arab world, and the streets are already boiling because of different reasons. One of them is the non-capacity of the government to provide food and dignity and different things. So the assassination of Sheikh Yassin is just a symbol of how the Arab world is now deteriorating. And I do not think they are going to go deep in this question for which they are condemned for their inactivity."
That 'inactivity' is another subject the leaders are to discuss.
The Arab League was formed in 1945, in part, to encourage member nations to coordinate their policies. Detractors have called it ineffective, because member states are rarely able to agree on important matters or pass resolutions that have any real impact. But because of the turmoil in the region, some analysts think the leaders will put off any serious reform of the organization until at least next year.
In addition to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Arab leaders are expected to discuss the situation in Iraq and the U.S. initiative for democratic reform throughout the Middle East.
But there is little the leaders can do, and little more they can say, about Iraq. And on democracy, they have made it clear they want any reforms to originate in the region. But Ambassador el-Ashaal is doubtful that an agreement on reform will be reached, because he says it is against the interests of the authoritarian regimes in the Arab world.
"No one wants to reform its authority because any reform would entail a reduction or even the elimination of the leaders," he said. "They want to stay and have their people around them. This is why I think the problem of reform will be pending for centuries, and the Arab League is a reflection of the Arab world and nothing will be happening in Tunis."
Analyst Hassan Nafaa of Cairo University says that is not a good thing. He believes the Arab League is at a critical juncture in its history. But he is concerned that without political reform Islamic groups will gain popularity among the people in many countries in the region. He blames that on Israeli and U.S. policies toward the Palestinians and Iraq, which he says paralyze even the most moderate Arab governments.
"I do not understand the Israeli and American policies, because if they undermine the so-moderate Arab governments right now, as a matter of fact they are paving the way to a more extremist ruling elite, and I think only the Islamic trends will be in a better shape to fill the vacuum," he said. "We are creating a political vacuum in the Arab world by these extremist Israeli and American policies. The people in the Arab world will say there is another alternative and that alternative is Islamic ruling. I am afraid we are heading toward this kind of corner."
With such issues on their minds, the Arab leaders may face a difficult two days of meetings. And analysts say that although the issues cry out for unified regional action, they doubt that the summit will produce strong initiatives.