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11 December 2023

Tunisia overshadows Arab economic summit


A meeting of Arab leaders to discuss trade and development has been overshadowed by the Tunisian uprising, which has emboldened the region's dissidents and led to protesters setting themselves ablaze.

The Wednesday summit will be the first time Arab heads of state gather since veteran Tunisian leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was forced to flee last week after days of mass protests sparked by the fiery death of a young Tunisian.

"The Arab world is witnessing today unprecedented political developments and real challenges in the sphere of Arab national security," Kuwait's Foreign Minister Mohammad al-Sabah said on Tuesday.

He told foreign ministers meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh to prepare for the summit: "Countries disintegrate, people conduct uprisings ... and the Arab citizen asks: 'Can the current Arab regime meet these challenges dynamically?'"

He questioned: "Can the regime address the humanitarian suffering of the Arab citizen?"

The uprising in Tunisia was sparked in December by the self immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old who was complaining of unemployment, one of the regional problems that the last Arab economic summit in 2009 was meant to alleviate.

Nine other people have set themselves ablaze in protests across the region.

Even as the foreign ministers were meeting on Tuesday, a man set himself ablaze outside government headquarters in Cairo, an Egyptian security official said. Another, unemployed and described as suffering mental problems, set himself on fire in the northern city of Alexandria.

The incidents follow a similar one in Cairo on Monday in which a man poured fuel on himself and lit it on a busy street in front of the People's Assembly.

He was hospitalised but expected to be released in a day or two, officials said.

A Mauritanian man who told journalists he was unhappy with his government also torched himself outside the senate, following five self immolations in a week in Algeria, which saw protests this month over rising prices.

The foreign minister of Tunisia's newly appointed transitional government, Kamel Morjane, arrived in Sharm el-Sheikh on Monday to brief his counterparts hours after he was sworn in.

On Tuesday, he said his transitional government's only ambition was to prepare for a free election and reforms.

"The Tunisian people have had their say and won in this popular uprising," he told reporters in Sharm El-Sheikh.

He said the transitional government's term was limited by law and by agreement among all parties.

"Its goal is to set up free presidential elections with integrity ... that will have foreign monitors or observers," he said, adding that those behind armed clashes would be investigated.

The removal of Ben Ali, who rigidly dominated his country for 23 years, encouraged dissidents in the region, where most leaders are either unelected or defeat their harried opponents in disputed polls.

Arab governments have downplayed any comparison with the North African country and its despised ex-president.

But many Arabs complain of poverty and restrictions on freedoms similar to the grievances of Tunisian protesters.

On Monday, Tunisian Interior Minister Ahmed Friaa said 78 people had been killed in the protests and losses to the economy amounted to €1.6 billion ($2.2 billion).