G-8 to meet with Egypt and Tunisia leaders

McClatchy NewspapersMay 26, 2011 

DEAUVILLE, France — Leaders of the world's eight biggest industrial democracies will meet Friday with heads of two of the newest and most fragile ones, as the old world order looks for ways to help democracy take hold in Egypt and Tunisia, and perhaps beyond, across the Middle East and North Africa.

The leaders of the Group of Eight — Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States — will meet with the new prime ministers of the first countries of the Arab Spring to overthrow their authoritarian governments: Essam Sharaf of Egypt and Beji Caid Essebsi of Tunisia.

In this seaside resort built for the rich and famous, the established leaders will weigh how they can steer desperately needed aid to countries where poverty exacerbated by revolution could threaten new upheaval, while also prodding the fledgling democracies to adopt proven models of open government and free markets.

The goal, in the words of British Prime Minister David Cameron, is to "help elevate the changes in North Africa and the Arab world from a moment in history to a turning point in history."

The most pressing need is financial aid; the two already weak economies have been hit by a drop in tourism amid the region-wide turmoil. Egypt's new government, for example, says it needs $12 billion.

President Barack Obama, who has proposed $2 billion in U.S. aid, hopes other countries and international organizations will follow suit. The European Commission has said it will add $1.75 billion to a fund that helps countries in its "neighborhood," presumably aimed at North Africa. The G-8 summit also could request the International Monetary Fund to chip in.

"The president aims to work with his G8 colleagues and the leaders who are coming in to visit here to build on the vision for democratization and economic modernization in the region," said David Lipton, special assistant to the president for international economic affairs.

"The leaders here will discuss both pillars, the political process of supporting democratic transition and governance reforms on the one hand, and the economic framework for generating sustained and inclusive growth," Lipton said.

Obama also wants to redirect the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development to help. The fund originally was established to help democracies emerging along with the fall of the Soviet Union, a successful transition many leaders hope will serve as a model for the Arab Spring.

At the same time, the White House is encouraging other efforts from outside the G-8, aides said. The Financial Times reports that Qatar is talking to other oil-rich countries such as Saudi Arabia about creating a fund modeled after the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development to marshal resources to help Arab neighbors.

The leaders Friday also will press the new governments to open their countries to trade. Egypt, for example, ranks among the most protectionist of all countries — only 21 were more restrictive, White House aides said. That helped produce vast unemployment among young people, a fuel for political upheaval.

One potential complication: the new Egyptian government's plan to open a border crossing to Gaza that could also open the way for shipping weapons there, endangering Israel.

"We're discussing with them how they're going to implement this," said Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser for strategic communications.

"We're going to reinforce the importance that we believe that, while on the one hand we very much do want to make sure that more humanitarian assistance and more aid and other types of support for the people of Gaza can get to them and allow them to live a better life, that we also, again, are not permitting the flow of weapons into Gaza, as has been the case in the past," Rhodes said.

As Obama and other leaders offer the carrots to new democracies, they also were using their meeting to reaffirm the stick of sanctions or military action against dictators in Libya and Syria who've responded to protests with bloody crackdowns.

On Libya, leaders such as Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy pushed to increase military pressure on dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

Obama, however, openly dismissed any suggestion that the U.S. would do any more militarily beyond launching occasional unmanned drone strikes. His aides stressed that the U.S. already is doing more in Libya beyond military actions, including ever-tighter sanctions on Gadhafi and increasing help for the anti-Gadhafi rebels.

In addition to a summiteers' meeting with anti-Gadhafi forces on Friday, the United States has said they can open an office in Washington, has an envoy in Benghazi to work with them, and recently hosted some at the White House, Rhodes said. Also, the Obama administration is trying to determine if it can divert some assets seized from Gadhafi to anti-Gadhafi rebels.

As they seek greater pressure on Gadhafi, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev offered to help mediate an end to violence in Libya during a one-on-one meeting Thursday with Obama.

On Syria, White House aides expect the summiteers to speak out against crackdowns that have killed roughly 1,000 Syrian demonstrators.

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