Uncertainty shrouds Arab League summit in Algeria

League was originally scheduled to convene in March but a Covid-19 delay may occur

Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz (C) chairs the opening session of the 30th Arab League summit in the Tunisian capital Tunis on March 31, 2019, with his Foreign Minister Ibrahim Al-Assaf (R) and Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit (L) seated next to him.  / AFP / POOL / FETHI BELAID
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The Arab League is facing a third year without a meeting, as the summit due to be held in Algeria in March is set to be delayed.

The rising controversy over the timing of the meeting comes as the region is mired in divisions and political unrest.

“It’s important to hold a successful summit no matter when or where it takes place and reflect a unified Arab League,” Fuad Sputa, Algeria’s deputy speaker of the People's National Assembly, told The National.

Many issues have accumulated since the League last convened in Tunis in 2019, with the proceeding two annual meetings cancelled due to the pandemic.

Algeria, the host country, closed its airspace to all Moroccan planes and cut off diplomatic ties with its neighbour last year as relations between the two became more strained.

Libya delayed its long-awaited presidential and legislative elections amid mistrust among the major political powers, while the president in Tunisia is facing accusations of a power grab and ruling by decree after he suspended Parliament and sacked the prime minister last July.

Sudan is still facing uncertainty after a military takeover in October, with protests raging against the army generals now leading the country.

Differences over readmitting Syria to the Cairo-based pan-Arab body after ten years of a membership freeze present yet another rabbit hole.

“The Arab League can’t live up to its responsibilities if the crises in our region persist. We want to see an Arab League speaking in unison. The world deals with unified organisations and not with an organisation, per se,” said Mr Sputa.

The organisation's assistant secretary general, Hossam Zaki, said last week that the summit would be delayed.

Mr Zaki, in statements carried by Agence France Presse, that Algeria “preferred the option” of delaying the summit, noting that the critical mass of Arab leaders and high-ranking officials needed for the summit could not be guaranteed due to the pandemic.

“There were no political reasons behind the delay, but the time could be used to improve political climates in the region,” he said on the sidelines of his visit to the Algerian capital.

Asked whether Syrian President Bashar Al Assad would be welcomed to the summit when it convenes, Mr Sputa said it was problematic. Damascus was expelled from the regional bloc 10 years ago due to the regime’s brutal repression of peaceful protests.

“Algerian diplomacy has been very active recently to help get more Arab countries on board to readmit Syria into the Arab League in the next meeting,” said Mr Sputa, a senior member of the former ruling party National Liberation Front of late president Abdel Aziz Bouteflika.

“Syria must be back to the Arab fold and it’s high time it won back its role in the region.”

In 2019, Algeria experienced mass protests that put an end to the 20-year reign of Bouteflika. The protests, known as the Hirak movement, paved the way for the arrest and conviction of several politicians and businesspeople on charges of corruption and abuse of power.

Abdel Naser Djabi, professor of political sociology at Algeria University, says the modest goal of the Arab summit is to defuse heightened tension in the region.

“It isn’t realistic if we expect from this summit to end such convoluted crises. It’s dispiriting, I know, but it’s the reality,” he said.

Updated: January 28, 2022, 8:33 AM