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G-8 leaders eye Arab world with hope, worry

Leaders of the world's rich democracies meeting Thursday are looking at tumult in the Arab world with both hope and fear.
/ Source: news services

Leaders of the world's rich democracies meeting Thursday are looking at tumult in the Arab world with both hope and fear.

They hope the new democracies in Egypt and Tunisia flourish and their economies rebound. And they fear that the war in Libya and uprisings in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain may entrench autocrats instead of defeating them.

At a two-day summit in this moneyed Normandy resort, President Barack Obama and the other leaders of the Group of Eight industrialized nations will seek to marshal their combined economic might behind the grass-roots democracy movements that have swept the Arab world but have also driven away tourists and investors.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper arrived in the cordoned-off beach town of Deauville on Wednesday night, while Obama, G-8 host French President Nicolas Sarkozy and the leaders of Britain, Germany, Japan and Italy are expected Thursday morning.

Arab uprisings are pushing aside deficits and austerity as the biggest worry of the G-8 leaders, and this year the leaders of Egypt, Tunisia and the Arab League will join the summit discussions. Several African leaders will also join for a special meeting Friday.

Overnight violence in Yemen, one of several Arab states where veteran rulers have faced unprecedented popular uprisings, may also get attention — the United States, a key sponsor of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, ordered all but essential diplomatic staff to leave the country as clashes intensified.

Officials from the G-8 had held preparatory talks on Wednesday in Deauville to hammer out common positions on issues ranging from the world economy to Libya's civil war, Iran's nuclear goals and unrest in Syria.

The summit is expected to approve a multi-billion-dollar aid package for Tunisia and Egypt, after "Arab Spring" uprisings deposed their autocratic leaders, and to seal an agreement to back others in the region who want democracy.

Protests against other allies of the West, notably in the oil-rich Gulf, are, however, unlikely to win clear assistance.

"We share a compelling interest in seeing the transitions in Egypt and Tunisia succeed and become models for the region," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner wrote in a letter to the G8 on Wednesday.

"Otherwise, we risk losing this moment of opportunity."

Thursday's talks start out looking at nuclear safety, with Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan scheduled to provide leaders with an update on the continuing crisis at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant.

Differences over online privacy and regulation may surface at a special session Thursday on the future of the Internet economy. Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Eric Schmidt of Google and other Internet executives took part in two days of debates in Paris this week that resulted in recommendations for the Deauville summit.

Partnership with Arab countries?
Egypt and Tunisia, where popular revolts this year overthrew authoritarian regimes, want to show that they are still sound investment destinations — even though the future shape and policies of their governments remains unclear.

Sarkozy wants this to be the founding moment of a partnership between the G-8 and Arab countries. That partnership may be strained, however, by tensions over how to handle Libya. NATO appears to have no exit strategy from the international air campaign launched two months ago to shore up Libyan rebel forces, and efforts to oust leader Moammar Gadhafi remain elusive.

Violence in Syria is likely to come up at the G-8 talks as well. Key European nations circulated a draft U.N. resolution Wednesday that would condemn Syria for its crackdown on peaceful protesters, U.N. diplomats said. The G-8 includes all the permanent Security Council members except China.

U.S. officials say it's too soon to reach a deal on dollar amounts for assistance to the Arab world.

The heads of the World Bank and the United Nations will also be present — but not the head of the International Monetary Fund. Former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, under house arrest in New York following his indictment for sexual assault, will be replaced for the event by the institution's acting managing director John Lipsky.

Finding a permanent replacement for Strauss-Kahn is likely to take up a good part of the summiteers' small talk. Europeans have rallied around the candidacy of French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde, but the U.S. is keeping silent on its position, and developing countries want a chance at the job, too.

A top Sarkozy official said the aid and investment to be promised to the Arab nations would resemble that which the then G-7 offered to Eastern and Central European nations after the collapse of communism in 1989. Post-Soviet Russia later joined the group, making it the G-8.

The G-8 has since lost some of its relevance with the growing clout of the Group of 20, which includes emerging economic giants such as China and India.

Police and gendarmes fill Deauville and surrounding towns and highways. Local ports, train stations and the airport are shut from Wednesday to Friday, and a no-fly zone enforced over the town.

Anti-capitalist protesters and radical movements have sought to call the leaders' attention to the plight of workers and the world's poor, but are not organizing big demonstrations close to the summit because of the heavy security.