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Tunisia overshadows Arab economic summit

SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Jan 18, 2011 – A meeting of Arab leaders in Egypt on Wednesday to discuss trade and development has been overshadowed by the Tunisian uprising, which has emboldened the region\’s marginalised dissidents.

The summit will be the first gathering of Arab heads of state since veteran Tunisian leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was forced to flee last week after days of mass protests.

"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 a foreign ministers\’ meeting in the resort town of 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 by the self immolation of Mohamed Bouaziz, 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.

Even as the foreign ministers were meeting on Tuesday, a man set himself ablaze outside Egypt\’s government headquarters in Cairo, an Egyptian security official said.

And on Monday, another Egyptian man set fire to himself outside parliament, apparently inspired by Bouaziz.

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.

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In the latest, a 36-year-old unemployed man set himself on fire near the frontier with Tunisia, Algerian newspapers reported.

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.

The removal of Ben Ali, who rigidly presided over 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 restrictions on freedoms and poverty similar to the grievances of Tunisian protesters.

Tunisian Interior Minister Ahmed Friaa on Monday said 78 people had been killed in the protests and losses to the economy amounted to 1.6 billion euros (2.2 billion dollars).

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