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G8 summit will see Harper define his position on Arab Spring

Prime Minister Stephen Harper shakes hands with Japan's Prime Minister Naoto Kan at the G8 summit in Deauville, France.

ANDREW WINNING/Andrew Winning/Reuters

Stephen Harper enters the G8 summit in Deauville, France, Thursday facing a moment that will measure his embrace of the Arab Spring of democratic movements in North Africa and the Middle East.

The summit's centrepiece will be an effort by the world's biggest industrialized democracies to marry political support to economic backing for pro-democracy movements in Egypt and Tunisia.

Mr. Harper's previous minority government was slow to respond to the protests in Cairo out of concerns for the security of Israel. Now the leader of a more secure majority government and a veteran among G8 leaders, he can choose between tepid or ardent support.

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Officials from the G8 - the United States, Canada, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Russia - held preparatory talks on Wednesday in the seaside resort of Deauville to hammer out common positions. Hosted by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the summit runs until Friday.

For the G8, which has passed on the role of steering the global economy to the broader G20 group of nations, its new mandate on security and development issues will be tested in its efforts to stabilize the transitions in Egypt and Tunisia, both hampered by the weakening of their economies.

On the issues of enforcement in North Africa and the Middle East, such as imposing sanctions on Syria and military intervention in Libya, Mr. Harper has sided with more hard-line G8 nations such as Britain, France and the United States, sending Canadian jets and backing muscular intervention by NATO allies.

But on those points, the G8 as a group, in its final communiqué, will not take a strong stand. Russia has opposed sanctions against Syria at the UN Security Council and has complained that NATO's campaign in Libya has far exceeded a UN mandate to protect civilians. During side meetings, Mr. Harper is expected to work with British Prime Minister David Cameron and Mr. Sarkozy to shore up the commitment of allies such as Germany, which is cool to the Libya mission as NATO strikes increasingly target Gadhafi-clan compounds and the Libyan regime's infrastructure.

The summit will see Mr. Harper define where he stands on broad democratic movements in the regions and efforts to secure their transitions.

The economies of Egypt and Tunisia, two countries that ousted dictators, have faltered since their Jasmine revolutions. Tourism has dried up, foreign investment has stopped, businesses have slowed or shut, and unemployment has risen. Government budgets are strained. The two countries have said they face a combined funding "gap" of about $15-billion, and the prime ministers of both will attend a G8 session.

There are concerns that economic frustrations that helped spark this year's demonstrations could derail reforms and lead to chaos or extremism.

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So the envoys of the G8 leaders designed a summit with a centrepiece: a "big, bold offer" to Egypt and Tunisia, with a statement that the most powerful industrialized economies back their transitions politically and economically.

But there won't be a G8 fund for Egypt and Tunisia. Asking all to contribute to the kitty would cause unease for poorer Russia and probably Japan, reeling from earthquakes, nuclear meltdowns and debt. The G8, the envoys agreed, would serve as a catalyst for mustering money, in the billions, to aid Egypt and Tunisia, but not commit money as a group.

Much of it will come from international financial institutions. World Bank President Robert Zoellick, who will attend the summit, pledged a package of $6-billion over two years, and the currently headless IMF is working on a package of its own.

The United States will talk about its own commitments to Egypt and Tunisia and has already indicated that it is looking at a $2-billion package of financing. The European countries - Britain, France, Germany and Italy - will highlight spending and lending by EU funds and institutions. But Egypt's envoy to Canada, Wael Aboulmagd, said he has yet to hear what Canada might contribute.

"We've been seeing an amount of goodwill, and an appreciation of the fact that the political reforms to which we all aspire - in Egypt and beyond - is supported by economic assistance," he said.

Mr. Harper, with other G8 leaders, is expected to endorse a move to have the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development - created in 1991 to support the former Soviet and East Bloc countries - extend its development lending to Egypt and Tunisia.

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Canada is the EBRD's eighth-largest shareholder and sits on its boards, so its blessing matters. For Egypt, access to a pool of billion of dollars to help small- and medium-sized projects and infrastructure building is critical, Mr. Aboulmagd said. "It's exactly what Egypt needs at this time," he said. "Job creation."

It remain unclear whether Canada will offer other kinds of assistance, such as increasing loan guarantees to regional development banks, or providing a package of direct aid.

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About the Author
Chief political writer

Campbell Clark has been a political writer in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau since 2000. Before that he worked for The Montreal Gazette and the National Post. He writes about Canadian politics and foreign policy. More

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