THE dramatic last-minute cancellation of the Arab League summit in Tunis has left the region's leaders vulnerable to fresh accusations of incompetence from the masses they rule over.
The cancellation has also highlighted Arab League disunity when their people are looking for strong, collective leadership in the wake of Israel's assassination of Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin.
The refusal even to discuss together the need for internal democratic reform comes after most Arab League members rejected a United States plan to promote freedom and progress in the region, known as the Greater Middle East Initiative.
'I'm so ashamed of all of them,' said Ahmed Al-Ghamdi, 23, a Saudi student at King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah.
'My only ambition now is to make enough money so I can leave the Middle East.
'Then I'll just laugh at my fellow Arabs from a distance when I watch TV,' he told The Straits Times.
Arab heads of state were due to meet yesterday in the North African country.
But on Saturday, the Tunisian Foreign Ministry suddenly announced that the summit would not take place after all.
It reportedly made the decision in the light of the 'difference of views' expressed during pre-summit discussions attended by Arab foreign ministers.
Some states, such as Egypt, had wanted to focus on US proposals for political reform.
But others, such as Syria, balked at that agenda, insisting that emphasis should instead be put on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - a safety valve long exploited by Arab dictators, for whom democracy threatens to undermine an absolute grip on power.
In several Egyptian cities, university students gathered by the thousands yesterday to denounce the leaders for 'selling' the blood of the assassinated Hamas leader.
Egypt swiftly offered to replace Tunisia as the summit host on April 16, an offer welcomed by the Cairo-based Arab League - but not before the damage had been done.
'The summit's failure reflects the current turmoil in the Arab world, and especially the gap between Arab leaders and their people.
'Arab leaders just want to cling to power, and cannot comprehend the kind of change their people are demanding,' Dr Daoud Kuttab, head of the Institute of Modern Media at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, told The Straits Times.
It was the first time an Arab summit has been cancelled since 1983, when members were divided over Syria's opposition to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war.
However, Arab summits - infamous for being 'talking shops' that come up with long lists of resolutions which are almost never implemented - are regularly plagued by verbal and sometimes even physical assaults involving the participants.
Mostly, as in Tunis, they happen behind closed doors.
However, with the emergence of satellite TV, Arabs now occasionally get to witness the spectacles live.
At last year's Arab League meeting in the Egyptian resort of Sharm Al-Sheikh, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi launched into a blistering attack on Saudi Arabia in an impromptu speech, mainly concerning the presence of US forces in the kingdom.
Crown Prince Abdullah, Saudi Arabia's de facto leader, interrupted Colonel Gaddafi, shouting in a rage:
'Who brought you to power? Don't interfere in matters in which you don't have any role. Your lies precede you, and your grave awaits you.'
Egyptian TV then pulled the plug on the live coverage.
'Unfortunately, we Arabs do not learn lessons from anything,' said Mr Abdul-Ridah Asiri, a political scientist at Kuwait University.
He said Arabs would have to produce democratic governments.
'The solution is a revolution to change leaderships...I don't mean bloody revolutions, but white revolutions - cultural and development revolutions,' he said.
Multiparty state with elected parliament and president. National Liberation Front, dominant party since independence from France 40 years ago, won 2002 parliamentary elections marred by violence.
Declared constitutional monarchy in 2002 as part of reforms that paved way for first legislative election in 30 years. Women voted and ran in October election, which secularists narrowly won. Final authority still resides with the King, Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa.
President Hosni Mubarak has been in control since 1981. He stands every five years as the only presidential candidate in yes-no referendums that always produce a yes vote of more than 90 per cent. Speculation persists that he is grooming his son to replace him.
US-led coalition to run country until June 30, when new Iraqi-run government replaces Saddam Hussein's 35-year dictatorship.
King Abdullah II, who succeeded late father, King Hussein, has virtually absolute power, but has pledged to transform kingdom into the 'model of a democratic Arab Islamic state'.
Politics controlled by the Emir, Sheikh Jaber Al Ahmed Al Sabah, and family. Kuwait is a pioneer among Arabs in electing parliament in 1963, but the Emir regularly dismisses national assemblies. Women barred from voting or running for office.
Elections not open because of power-sharing agreement meant to prevent resurgence of sectarian civil war.
Legislative seats apportioned equally to Christians and Muslims; prime minister must be Sunni Muslim, president Christian. Syria wields great influence over Lebanese politics.
Muammar Gaddafi in absolute power since 1969 military coup.
King Mohammed VI appoints prime minister and members of government following legislative election; can fire any minister, call for new election, or rule by decree. Socialist party won September 2002 parliamentary election.
Sultan Qaboos became ruler by overthrowing father in 1970. In October 2003, the country held its first election open to all citizens for an advisory council. No political parties or elected legislature.
Yasser Arafat, under growing pressure to share power, appointed a prime minister in 2003 but Mahmoud Abbas' government collapsed in a dispute over security control with Arafat. The same disagreement nearly sank Prime Minister Ahmed Qurie's government, appointed in September, until Qurie gave in.
Arafat retains indirect control in many areas, including security.
Promises parliamentary election after holding first municipal elections in 1999, with women participating fully.
Qataris voted overwhelmingly in April 2003 for a new constitution that guarantees freedom of expression, religion and assembly.
It also provides for a 45-member parliament, two-thirds of which will be elected and the rest appointed by the Emir.
Crown Prince Abdullah rules on behalf of ailing King Fahd; no elected legislature. In a sign royal family feeling pressure to reform, the Cabinet announced in October that Saudis will be able to vote in municipal election. Government also recently set up a national human rights commission and let international rights monitors visit for the first time.
President Bashar Assad wields near-absolute power, disappointing those who expected the young, Western-educated doctor to open up politics. Succeeded father, longtime dictator Hafez Assad, who died in 2000.
President Omar el-Bashir in power since 1989 coup. Moved recently to lessen influence of fundamentalist Islamic leaders, but democratic reform not on agenda.
Republic dominated by single party, Constitutional Democratic Assembly, since independence from France in 1956. Opposition parties allowed since 1981.
UNITED ARAB EMIRATES
Federation of states, each controlled by own Emir and family.
President Ali Abdullah Saleh presides over largely feudal society. Despite a constitution, elected parliament and lively press, power rests with military and tribes.