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Arab League Chief Warns of Dangers after Cancellation of Summit - 2004-03-28

The chief of the Arab League has warned that the sudden cancellation of this week's scheduled summit will have dangerous consequences for stability and unity in the Arab world. But some Arab leaders say they will press ahead with plans to revive peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, and encourage change in the Middle East.

The Tunisian Foreign Ministry said the summit was canceled when member states could not bridge differences about how to initiate democratic reform in the Middle East. An Arab League summit has not been canceled in more than 20 years.

The official Tunisian news agency published a commentary saying that Tunisia had pressed for all the member countries to embrace democracy and reject extremism and violence. The commentary says the Tunisian government was surprised when some countries refused to agree on what the news agency called these essential matters.

The cancellation of the summit, which the Tunisian foreign minister described as regrettable, came as a surprise to many Arab leaders, including former Arab League secretary general Esmat Abdel Meguid.

"I am certainly very surprised," he said, "like millions of Arabs that have been following the meeting and expecting it to take important decisions regarding very serious questions, particularly the Palestinian question and the Iraqi question."

The recent killing of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the co-founder of the militant Palestinian group Hamas, combined with U.S. pressure for democracy and reforms in the Middle East, led many analysts to predict that the top-level meeting of the 22 Arab leaders would end in deadlock. But there were few predictions that the meeting would be canceled.

The head of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, who had told reporters earlier Saturday he was optimistic that an agreement could be reached despite differences of opinion, warned of dangerous consequences from the cancellation.

But Abdullah el-Ashaal, former Egyptian ambassador and professor of international law at Cairo University, says the effects will not be that damaging.

"Amr Moussa proved to be inefficient and he made many statements that are wrong," said Mr. el-Ashaal. "I do not think the consequences are as dangerous as he imagined. He wanted to give some importance to his work."

Mr. el-Ashaal also said that the Tunisian decision to call off the summit was procedural and temporary and said Tunisia has long been reluctant to host what could be seen as a volatile and ineffective meeting. Amr Moussa also referred to a "postponement," although no new date was set.

The Egyptian government immediately offered to host a new meeting as soon as possible. President Hosni Mubarak said in a statement that different points of view are "natural and logical," and said that Arab countries face challenges they can not ignore or postpone.