Egypt snubs Arab summit, tension high

  • World
  • Wednesday, 26 Mar 2008

MYT 10:16:27 PM

DAMASCUS (Reuters) - Egypt plans to send a junior minister to the upcoming Arab summit in Damascus, effectively snubbing a meeting which is usually attended by heads of state, officials and media said on Wednesday.

An Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman in Damascus said Minister of State for Legal and Assembly Affairs Moufid Shehab would represent Egypt at the meeting. In Cairo, an official said Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit would not attend.

Tension is running high ahead of the March 29-30 summit over a political crisis in Lebanon that has prevented rival parties from electing a new president. Egypt says Syria had not done enough to resolve the Lebanese crisis.

Egypt is the second major Arab country which is planning to send a low-level representative to the summit in Damascus, expected to discuss lingering problems in Iraq, Lebanon and the fate of an Arab peace initiative with Israel.

Analysts say Syria is facing diplomatic isolation by Saudi Arabia and Egypt for its alliance with non-Arab Iran in a regional jockeying for power against the United States.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said only Arab countries represented by their leaders will address the summit.

"President Bashar al-Assad has chosen to make this summit distinguished by leaving speeches to the Arab leaders... The meeting will be a milestone in the Arab cooperation effort," Moualem told reporters.

Moualem said Assad will assume the summit's presidency as soon as the meeting starts on Saturday, doing away with a handover from the previous host Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah has decided to stay away from the meeting, and instead plans to send Riyadh's permanent Arab League representative. Saudi Arabia is a main ally of the pro-Western Lebanese government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

The Egyptian decision came a day after Lebanon's anti-Syrian government said it would boycott the meeting because of Syria's role in blocking the election of a new Lebanese president.

Moualem said Lebanon had lost a "golden opportunity to discuss its crisis and relations with Syria by not attending the summit."

The Beirut government blames Syria and its Lebanese allies, led by the Shi'ite Hezbollah group, for the crisis that has paralysed government and left the country without a president for the first time since the 1975-1990 civil war.

Syria had expected 12-14 Arab leaders out of 22 to attend the annual summit. An Algerian official in Damascus said Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika will go to the summit. Other heads of state have yet to make a decision.

Arab foreign ministers will meet in Damascus on Thursday as part of preparations for the summit. The agenda includes Iraq, Lebanon and the fate of an Arab peace initiative toward Israel.

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