, SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Jan 19 – Arab leaders gather in Egypt on Wednesday to discuss trade and development as the region feels the aftershocks of a popular uprising in Tunisia that emboldened dissidents in the Arab world.
It is the first meeting of Arab heads of state since Tunisian leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was forced out of the country on Friday after weeks of protests sparked by the self immolation of an unemployed man.
The death has sparked a rash of copycat attempted suicides in Algeria and Egypt, where two men set themselves on fire on Monday as foreign ministers met in the resort town of Sharm el-Sheik to prepare for the summit.
One of the Egyptians succumbed to his injuries on Tuesday.
Addressing the meeting, Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Mohammad al-Sabah reminded his counterparts of the challenges the region faces.
"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 government of Egypt, where roughly half of the population lives on two dollars a day and dissidents complain of similar grievances to Tunisia\’s protesters, has denied any similarity with Tunisia.
Foreign ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki said the Tunisian uprising was peculiar to that country and Egypt allowed its citizens more freedoms.
The summit will also take place as early results indicate most southern Sudanese voted for independence in a referendum this month that is expected to partition Africa\’s largest country.
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir arrived in Sharm el-Sheikh on Tuesday to attend the summit.
The meeting is expected to implement the resolutions of its predecessor, which was held in Kuwait in 2009, and which included setting up a $2 billion fund to finance small and medium sized businesses.
In a region where rulers often assume power through coups or inheritance, the Tunisian uprising was unusual in that a highly autocratic ruler was forced out by mass protests.
Tunisian Foreign Minister Kamel Morjane, who briefed his counterparts in Sharm el-Sheikh on developments in his country, told reporters at a press conference that the protests were fuelled by political and economic grievances.
Delegates from one of the countries complained to AFP that they expected the summit\’s pledges to lead to nowhere, as previous promises had.
But the economic aspect of the Tunisian revolt, which is mirrored in other countries in the region, may add to the urgency of taking measures to alleviate poverty in the region.