G8 summit expected to approve aid package for 'Arab Spring' states

Industrialised nations will promise cash to support democracy in the Middle East
  • @indyvoices

Leaders of the world's richest nations will promise today to provide loans and cash to shore up the economies of the so-called Arab Spring countries, where people have risen up against authoritarian leaders, but they might stop short of accepting the sweeping "Middle East Marshall Plan" which some had called for.

Leaders of the G8 group of industrial nations are expected to approve the principle of a special aid package for Egypt and Tunisia at the end of the two-day summit in Deauville, Normandy, today. But the final summit statement is expected – partly as a result of US opposition – to avoid the specific cash and loan promises that the newly democratised Arab countries had hoped for.

British officials said that the Prime Minister, David Cameron, was ready to promise £110m in aid for such countries over four years. The initial beneficiaries would be Tunisia and Egypt. Both have struggled to restore stability after pro-democracy protests which removed Tunisia's president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in January and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt a month later.

The money would mostly be channelled towards non-governmental organisations or invested in efforts to build democratic institutions. In pre-summit TV interviews, Mr Cameron said he wanted a "very simple and clear message" to go to those campaigning for democratic freedoms in the Middle East and North Africa. "We are on your side. We will help you build your democracy, we will help your economies."

Today's summit declaration is expected to promise a "durable partnership" with Egypt and Tunisia and any other Arab countries which overthrow autocratic rule. Cairo has asked for $10bn to $12bn (£6.1bn to £7.3bn) by the middle of next year. Tunisia says it needs $25bn over five years.

The US has already promised a multibillion-dollar contribution but is reluctant to be pinned down further. The summit chairman, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, said that leaders would discuss the aid package over dinner last night. Asked if there would be an overall figure, he said only that the issue was "one of the most important on the summit agenda".

The summit communiqué is expected to outline a large potential loan programme, run by the World Bank and the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development. But the leaders may stop short of making specific, overall cash and loan commitments.

The first day of the summit also discussed nuclear safety in the wake of the calamity at the Fukushima plant in Japan. Mr Sarkozy said the leaders had agreed that developed nations must work towards new safety rules which would be "stronger than anything seen before".

The summit, although neither as fractious nor as productive as some previous G7 or G8 gatherings, did make history in one respect. The world leaders met a high-level delegation of internet big-hitters, including Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, and Eric Schmidt, the boss of Google. It was agreed that this week's pre-summit summit on the future of the internet – the eG8 – should become an annual event. Beyond that, there was only a marginal meeting of minds on proposals put forward by Mr Sarkozy for "minimal" government regulation of the 'net to protect creative rights and privacy.

The summit declaration today is expected to recognise that governments have a legitimate right to consider imposing rules on the net but the statement will also stress the contribution that a "free" web can make to job creation and political liberties.

Mr Sarkozy said last night that the summit had asked internet leaders to consider what form of government regulation they could live with. Mr Schmidt told a press briefing that most big internet players accepted that some form of international regulation of the web might eventually be necessary. "But we fear that rapid regulation will cut off innovation," he said. "It would be much better to look, first, for technological ways of solving genuine issues, such a protection of copyright and privacy."

Billionaire Mr Zuckerberg, 28, looked pleased to have been invited but did not say much. Asked if he would like to comment on how Facebook and other social sites could help the spread of democracy in the Arab world, Mr Zuckerberg reflected for a moment and then said "no".