Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Yemen dominate Arab ministers’ meeting

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Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Abul Gheit gestures as he talks with Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, at a pre Arab Economic and Social Development summit meeting in Beirut, Lebanon January 18, 2019. (Reuters)
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The chair of the Syrian Arab Republic is empty at the opening session of the Arab foreign ministers meeting ahead of a weekend Arab Economic Summit, in Beirut, Lebanon, Friday, Jan. 18, 2019. (AP)
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Flags of the Arab league states are seen on display ahead of the Arab Economic and Social Development Summit in Beirut on January 17, 2019. (AFP)
Updated 18 January 2019
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Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Yemen dominate Arab ministers’ meeting

  • Arab League chief highlights ‘enormous challenges’ facing region
  • Lebanese FM urges Arabs to ‘not abandon’ his country

BEIRUT: The concerns of the people of Palestine, Syria, Iraq and Yemen were the main topic of the opening session of a meeting of Arab ministers held in preparation for the Arab development summit on Sunday in Beirut.
The meeting in the Lebanese capital’s Phoenicia Hotel saw unprecedented security measures covering a large area, including the summit’s venues and the accommodation of guests and journalists. 
Only three presidents have so far confirmed their attendance at the summit — those of Lebanon, Somalia and Mauritania.
However, the Arab League’s Assistant Secretary-General Hossam Zaki called for “separating between the attendance and the summit itself, and the importance of its topics and the resolutions it will produce.”
During a media briefing, Zaki said: “The attendance of Arab leaders will undoubtedly increase the importance of the summit, but their absence, which has spurred media commentary, does not diminish the importance of the topics addressed by the summit — and many summits are not attended by presidents.”
The summit’s media spokesman Rafic Chlala told Arab News: “The presidents who decided not to attend the summit have sent their delegates, which means the summit hasn’t failed, as some are trying to portray it.” 
He said Lebanese President Michel Aoun will propose at the summit “a funding project for the reconstruction of all Arab countries devastated by war.” Chlala added: “We’re waiting for states that requested amendments to the initiative.”
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry on Friday conveyed President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi’s apology for not being able to attend the summit “due to commitments that obliged him to stay in Cairo.”
On whether Egypt will support Aoun’s initiative at the summit, Shoukry said: “Egypt supports all that would achieve the common Arab interest.”
Zaki said: “The Syrian displacement issue is on the agenda but the visions are dissimilar.” At the meeting, Syria’s seat was empty due to its suspension from the Arab League, and Libya’s seat was empty because it is boycotting the summit after supporters of the Lebanese Amal Movement tore down the Libyan flag in Beirut. 
“Syria’s return to the Arab League requires an Arab consensus, as in the case of the suspension of its membership,” said Zaki. 
“Syria’s return to the Arab League is natural and normal, as it has not lost its seat and has not been expelled, but its membership was suspended.” 
Prior to the ministerial session, Lebanese Economy and Trade Minister Raed Khoury said: “Most of the agenda items have been approved... but there are some matters that are being discussed.” 
He added: “A discussion is being held on the safe and dignified return of Syrian refugees, and the mechanism for financing countries that have suffered from armed conflicts.”
Ahmed Abdul Aziz Kattan, Saudi Arabia’s minister of state for African affairs, handed over the chairmanship of the ministerial meeting to Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil.
Bassil invited all delegates to observe a minute’s silence in memory of the late Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, and all Lebanese killed while fighting terrorism.
In his opening speech, Bassil called on Arabs “to embrace Lebanon and not abandon it.” He thanked Saudi Arabia for presiding over the previous summit and for its efforts.
Bassil spoke of “big challenges in the Arab world, including wars, hunger and poverty as well as intolerance, extremism, terrorism, and women and child abuse.” 
He asked: “If we have caused wars for each other, is it not time to end them? Shouldn’t we consider construction instead of destruction?”
He said: “Let us put a unified Arab economic vision that is based on a political principal that ensures we do not attack one another or intervene in each other’s affairs.” 
He added: “Syria is the biggest gap today in our conference, and we feel the weight of its absence instead of the lightness of its attendance. Syria must return to us so that we end the loss for ourselves before we end it for Syria.” 
Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit said: “The enormous challenges facing the Arab region compel us to develop new visions and come up with innovative ideas for the future.”
He added: “No Arab country can cope with the developments on its own. Economic integration and policy coordination are a necessity, not a luxury.” 
Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad Al-Maliki stressed the need to end the Israeli occupation, implement UN resolutions and intervene to bring justice to his people.
“Jerusalem is facing the worst Judaization scheme that aims to change its legal, political and religious features,” he said.
“We need our Arab brothers to support the promising economy of Palestine, which has investment opportunities in many areas.”
Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said: “Jerusalem is the key to peace.” He highlighted the need to ensure the continuation of the work of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), and to reach a political solution to the Syrian war that is accepted by Syrians, preserves their country’s unity and allows the voluntary return of the displaced.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohammad Ali Al-Hakim urged Arab states to “fulfil their commitments in accordance with the Iraq reconstruction conference,” highlighting the importance of food security as a pillar for stability.
Yemeni Industry and Trade Minister Mohammed Al-Maitami said the “Houthi coup” created a “humanitarian crisis” and a “tragic reality” in his country. “Twenty-two million Yemenis are below the poverty line and need humanitarian aid.”


Sudan protesters remain resilient, but Bashir unbowed

Updated 36 min 1 sec ago
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Sudan protesters remain resilient, but Bashir unbowed

  • Demonstrators are pressing on with rallies despite a show of defiance from the veteran leader and a sweeping crackdown by the authorities
  • Officials say 31 people have died in protest-related violence so far

KHARTOUM: Sudanese protester Osman Sulaiman has taken to the streets of Khartoum chanting “overthrow, overthrow” almost daily since demonstrations erupted against President Omar Al-Bashir’s iron-fisted rule in December.
And he insists he has no intention of stopping now.
“We have to fight our battle if we have to secure our future and the future of our country,” Sulaiman, an engineering graduate who has been unemployed for years, told AFP.
As the protest campaign against Bashir’s regime enters its third month on Tuesday, demonstrators are pressing on with rallies despite a show of defiance from the veteran leader and a sweeping crackdown by the authorities.
Officials say 31 people have died in protest-related violence so far, while Human Rights Watch says at least 51 have been killed including medics and children.
Hundreds of protesters, opposition leaders, activists and journalists have been jailed by agents of the feared National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS).
“The protesters’ resilience has been very impressive,” says Murithi Mutiga of International Crisis Group (ICG).
“Two months have passed, but the movement’s momentum has remained and participation has grown geographically and across socio-economic classes.”
On Sunday, scores of protesters rallied in Khartoum chanting their catchcry “freedom, peace, justice” as police fired tear gas.
Demonstrations first erupted on December 19 in the farming town of Atbara against a government decision to triple the price of bread.
But the rallies swiftly mushroomed into a major challenge to Bashir’s three-decade rule, with those taking part demanding his resignation.
From the provinces to the streets of the capital and its twin city Omdurman the demonstrations have spread through villages, towns and cities across the east African nation.
They have drawn in a cross section of society including middle-class professionals, agricultural laborers, youths and Bashir’s political opponents — with thousands of women and men rallying across the country on some days.
Only the three conflict zones of Darfur, Blue Nile and South Kordofan have remained largely devoid of mass demonstrations.
“Despite the violence unleashed by the regime, the movement has extended even to the rural areas,” said Mohamed Yusuf, a spokesman for the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), an umbrella group of unions that has spearheaded the campaign.
“We believe the movement will not stop as new groups have joined it.”
Sudan’s main opposition National Umma Party led by former premier Sadiq Al-Mahdi has backed the campaign and called for Bashir to step down.
Bashir swept to power in an Islamist-backed coup in 1989 that overthrew the elected government of Mahdi.
The SPA has called on political groups to join their movement by signing a “Document for Freedom and Change.”
The text outlines a post-Bashir plan including rebuilding Sudan’s justice system and halting the country’s dire economic decline, the key reason for the nationwide demonstrations.
Sudan’s financial woes were long a cause of popular frustration before the anger spilt onto the streets after the bread price hike.
Soaring inflation along with acute foreign currency shortages have battered the economy, especially after the independence of South Sudan in 2011 took away the bulk of oil earnings.
Protest campaigners have kept their supporters motivated by announcing rallies on behalf of detained comrades or to honor “martyrs” killed in the protests.
If security forces have prevented protesters from reaching downtown Khartoum, then they have rallied in outlying neighborhoods, sometimes at night.
On occasion, the calls to protest have failed to mobilize people, but there have also been demonstrations that have seen crowds of professors, doctors, engineers and teachers chanting anti-Bashir slogans.
The president’s ruling National Congress Party (NCP) insists that after two months the campaign has begun petering out.
“The protests continued for a long time but the reality is that demonstrations have now slowed,” said NCP spokesman Ibrahim Al-Siddiq.
“This is because protesters lack popular support.”
Analysts say continuing support from the security forces for the regime and Bashir’s own defiance have created a deadlock.
“The president remains very stubborn and the protesters remain very determined,” said Mutiga of ICG.
“What we now have is a clear stalemate.”
Bashir has countered the demonstrations with his own rallies, promising economic development in the country and promoting peace in its war zones.
Dismissing calls for his resignation, he has insisted that the ballot box is the only way to change the government.
The 75-year-old leader is considering a run for a third term in an election scheduled in 2020.
For now, those taking to the streets say they will keep up the pressure.
Aaya Omer, a resident of Khartoum’s eastern district of Burri, shows no sign of giving up.
“We will continue with our struggle because we deserve a better life,” the 28-year-old woman said.
“I’ll continue to protest until our mission to overthrow this regime is achieved.”