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Arab League Meeting Offers Hope for Further Discussions About Reforms - 2004-05-24

The Arab League has concluded its yearly summit in Tunis with promises of deep political, social, economic, and educational reforms, as well as greater human rights. But not everyone is convinced the League is serious about reform, and even some senior Arab officials acknowledge such reforms are years and possibly decades away. The Arab League has, for years, been accused of being long on words and short on action.

In recent years the organization, created in 1945 to help foster Arab unity, has found itself passing resolutions mostly filled with anti-Israel rhetoric regarding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

"The Arab League has been focusing on political issues for a number of years," said Hossam Zaki, the Arab League spokesman. "This did not help give the image of an effective organization in view of the fact that we have been suffering from setback after setback in the political arena and especially in the Palestinian question. So, we need to focus on other things and not divert our attention, but rather have a wider scope of attention that should include economic and social issues."

Two years ago, the league adopted a Saudi proposal in which the organization agreed to normalize relations with Israel in return for an Israeli pullout of Palestinian territories occupied by Israel after 1967. But while the Arab world hailed it as a historic proposal, the idea failed to gain much attention in Tel Aviv or in Washington, where President Bush was proposing the so-called Roadmap for Peace that had won the support of key members of the United Nations.

That setback, according to many political analysts in the Middle East, sent the Arab League reeling from accusations of being politically impotent.

So, with war in Iraq, the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by some U.S. soldiers, incidents of terror in Saudi Arabia and other regional states, an escalation in the Palestinian-Israeli crisis and the recent U.S. imposition of economic sanctions against Syria for allegedly supporting terrorism, many analysts said they were expecting this year's Arab League summit to produce a new round of heated condemnations.

But while there was familiar language regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including demanding an Israeli pullback from Palestinian territories occupied after 1967, along with a condemnation of the abuse of Iraqi prisoners, a great many of the resolutions passed Sunday by the Arab League dealt with calls for political, economic, social and educational reform throughout the Arab world.

Arab leaders also called for human rights, greater rights for women, and modernization of government institutions to more effectively respond to the needs of the public.

The Canadian ambassador to Tunisia, Wilfred Licari, said he was most impressed with Arab desire to modernize.

"I think it could be a real success if they can go through with this proposal on modernization," he said. "This is a new kind of proposal, and that summit will be remembered as the summit which has launched a kind of new initiative in terms of giving new parameters to the whole of the Arab world to modernize their institutions and strengthen the role of women and civil society."

According to the British ambassador to Tunisia, Robin Kealy, the Arab world has no choice but to modernize.

"You need reform because the world is not standing still," said Mr. Kealy. "You have got to beat the competition. You have got to be transparent. You have got to have a rule of law which will encourage investors, whether they are ones already here, to stay and expand. And, others might come. If you are a dictator or not, the economic facts are there."

But while the Arab League is calling for reform, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa acknowledged Sunday that because of a lack of financial backing from the League, the organization has little to no ability to enforce the resolutions it passes. But Mr. Moussa promised there would be broad discussions, meetings and follow-ups over the next year aimed at creating new mechanisms for enforcement.

The Palestinian representative to the Arab League, Mohammad Sobeih, said such promises are not good enough.

"The plan includes follow-up in the Arab League. But, there is a difference between follow-up and a monitoring or a time scale based on a very tight sort of control," he emphasized. "That control is not there. We are talking about problems that really require some real change in society. Its position toward women, its position towards democracy and all of the civil society, all of these are matters of vital importance to the world. But, they need a dynamic in order to happen, and the dynamic is not just monitoring by the Arab League."

Even senior Arab League officials acknowledge the kinds of reforms the league has adopted will not occur anytime in the near future. One very senior Arab League official said real social, economic, political, and education reform in the region will not occur until much of what he called old-guard Arab regimes are gone.

But political analysts in the region say the fact that reforms are now being openly discussed by Arab leaders gives hope that such reforms will actually occur.