x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

France joins US in urging G8 to back Arab Spring with financial support

France and US see duty for world's top economies to put aside their own financial problems and come up with massive sums in aid for countries such as Tunisia and Egypt, to ensure political gains are not destroyed by descent into economic crisis.

Egypt's tourism industry was badly affected by the political turmoil, with arrivals in the first quarter down 46 per cent from last year. Khalil Hamra / AP Photo
Egypt's tourism industry was badly affected by the political turmoil, with arrivals in the first quarter down 46 per cent from last year. Khalil Hamra / AP Photo

France will mark its role as host to a G8 summit of western powers tomorrow by joining the United States in urging nations to match their support for the Arab Spring uprisings with financial clout.

In the elegant Normandy resort of Deauville, leaders of the industrialised nations will consider urgent pleas for aid from Egypt and Tunisia, the countries where the revolts began but which are now suffering economically.

French security forces will be out in force in case protesters stage violent demonstrations. Thousands of activists turned out for a dress rehearsal in nearby Le Havre at the weekend, their leading banner proclaiming: "G8 get lost, people first, not finance." That protest ended without serious incident but more than 12,000 police and military personnel have reportedly been mobilised to protect the two-day Deauville conference.

Among high-profile delegates, Barack Obama, the US president, has set the tone by defying domestic critics to call for significant US help in supporting fledgling democracies in the region.

On Egypt alone, he said in a speech on Middle East affairs last week, Washington should wipe out US$1 billion (Dh3.67bn) in debt and offer a similar figure in loan guarantees.

The West warmly welcomed the clamour for democratic change that toppled the regimes of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. It also supports the anti-Qaddafi rebellion in Libya.

France and the US now see a duty to convince other G8 members - Britain, Canada, Germany, Italy, Japan and Russia - to put aside their own economic problems and come up with massive sums in aid. US opponents of Mr Obama have already complained that the US simply cannot afford it.

But the clear view from Tunis and Cairo is that G8 powers should back their words with tangible support, not least to ensure political gains are not destroyed by descent into economic crisis.

"We hope that the international community understands that the risk of failure of the Tunisian revolution is not only for the Arab region but also for world peace," said a Tunisian economist, Mohammed Ben Romdhane. The country needs political stability and has "an overriding need for economic support".

And in Egypt, Ibrahim Issawi, an economist at the petroleum ministry, stressed the dire state of the economy, which he described as being "in a serious impasse with the absence of security forces, sectarian strife and rising social movements".

Some analysts and political figures say the threat goes beyond the needs of each country and risks setting back democratic progress and encouraging radical movements.

Decisions on aid for those countries would also send welcome signals to Libyan rebels fighting to bring down the regime of Muammar Qaddafi. But, in the short term, it is the predicaments of Egypt and Tunisia that provide G8 leaders with an immediate focus.

Both suffer from high unemployment and, in particular, serious damage to their vital tourism industries. The stream of refugees from Tunisia to southern Europe, typically involving hazardous sea crossings, bears witness to the human cost of failed economic life.

Egypt estimates it needs between $10bn to $12bn in aid to tide it over. About half of this could be met in loans being negotiated from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

Since the revolt in January, the Egyptian tourism industry has lost $2.2bn with the number of visitors plummeting by 46 per cent in the first three months of the year. Egyptian economic growth of 6 per cent had been projected for this year; officials say it will now struggle to reach 2 per cent.

Tunisia is also suffering. A glittering soiree was held in a grand Parisian hotel earlier this month to persuade the French to regain their appetite for holidays in the country. A campaign costing the government and tourism industry €30 million (Dh157.8m) has been launched to improve on the "very bad" figures recorded since January.

Until tourism fully recovers, which many feel will come, growth in Tunisia is considered likely to stagnate, not exceeding 1 per cent this year.

G8 delegates also will have to consider demands from their own citizens to get out of Afghanistan, the continuing violence in Syria and the failure to oust the Qaddafi regime.

Delegates also are expected to discuss Japan, including the future of nuclear power generation. And, closer to home, is the question of who takes the place of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, now awaiting trial in New York on sex charges, as managing director of the IMF.

The summit also will consider a message from a new forum, launched by Mr Sarkozy yesterday, to assess the way in which the internet affects society and the economy.

He said democracy and human rights had been strengthened by online advances and that the internet had become essential to world growth.

Some bloggers and internet-freedom lobbies disputed these claims, accusing governments of using regulation for their own reasons of political and financial control, but the French president said: "States have been incited to greater transparency and, in some countries, oppressed people have been empowered to make their voices hears and to act collectively in the name of freedom."

* Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse

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