All-star political cast gathers in Egypt

CAIRO — It has a star-studded cast and a backdrop to make a Hollywood set designer drool.

And when the curtain went up on this year's Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Shiekh on Wednesday, the lead actors didn't disappoint.

First up to the microphone, one of the veteran leaders of the not-so-free world, Egyptian president, and incoming NAM chairman, Hosni Mubarak.

“We face the largest part of its repercussions and pressures and suffering,” he said of the continuing global economic malaise. “We call for a new international political, economic and trade order — a more just and balanced order that prevents discrimination and double standards, achieves the interests of all, takes into account concerns of developing countries and establishes democratic dealings between rich and poor states.”

Cuban President Raul Castro continued the theme, discussing the collapse of the global economy: "Developing countries were the most affected by the financial crisis … ."

He continued, taking a not so veiled swipe at the West: "And as usual, the wealthy countries were the source of the current crisis, which was affected by the ... illogic of the international economic order that depends on blind market principles and consumption, and wealth of the few.” 

That left it to Libyan president Moammar Gaddafi to vary the script, perhaps even entertain what must be a tough crowd, with delegates as diverse as the Australian trade minister, the Pakistan and Indian prime ministers and a gaggle of highly ranked Chavenistas, though not the Venezuelan president himself.

Iran had a right to pursue nuclear energy, Gaddafi insisted, though he tempered the statement by saying that the Shiite Islamic Republic should not be permitted to obtain nuclear weapons.

Two hotly anticipated appearances — that of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya — were a bust, though both were the topic of significant discussion.

In all, about 55 heads of state from the 118 countries of NAM turned out on the opening day of its 15th summit which, observers agreed, would not lead to much in the way of accomplishments (although for followers of such events it certainly would have entertainment value). Rather, observers said, the summit provided a public platform for some of the world's most charismatic statesmen to speak on some of the world’s hot button issues — such as the world economy. 

Any diplomacy and deal-making, they said, would take place in smaller closed-door meetings and have little bearing on world events.

The NAM was founded in 1955 by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito and Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in order to present a third path for countries unwilling to throw their support behind either of the two Cold War blocs led by the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

They thought at the time, said American University in Cairo Political Science Department Chair Walid Kazziha, that “they could benefit by the rift between the Soviets and the U.S. by playing one side against the other.”

The purpose of founding the movement, said Kazziha, was not only to establish a third way, politically, but also to offer an economic doctrine of socialism as a middle path between American capitalism and Soviet communism.

The NAM was particularly attractive to new African nations that didn’t buy wholly into the philosophies of either world superpower. By the 1960s, though, the main premise of the movement collapsed as the Soviets and Americans pressured many of the countries into one camp or the other.

Decades later, the NAM is still struggling for relevance. The movement has failed to establish itself as a powerful bloc largely because many of the member-states find themselves pursuing divergent interests.

So at the Sharm el-Sheikh summit, organizers appear to have made the universal concern of the global economy the top priority.

“The historical context in which this group was created is very different from now,” said Diaa Rashwan, a political expert at Egyptian think tank the Ahram Center. “But the financial and economic positions make this group still relevant, but not politically.”

Summit leaders seemed eager Wednesday to exert their rhetorical muscle on the economy, the issue where they stand to affect the most change, with Messrs. Mubarak and Castro leading the charge.

High-level Indian and Pakistani officials, meantime, sat down Tuesday to discuss how to repair relations that have deteriorated in the wake of terrorist attacks that each country has blamed on the other. Pakistani Prime Minister Yousef Raza Galani and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh were expected to talk Thursday morning, according to wire reports.

As for the Honduran coup, leaders have been working on a proposal that would condemn the military overthrow of the Central American government.

A number of other issues, from Serbia to North Korea to China, are also on the table, though leaders are not expected to do much more than pay lip service to them when they vote on a joint declaration Thursday.

Still, one country that is not participating may be the most significant player. With new leadership in the United States and Western primacy over the global economy, Kazziha said much of the NAM’s discussion this week would center on continued efforts by many countries to find elbow-room in a world that revolves so heavily around the U.S.

“[The summit] suits the purpose of so many third world countries, including Egypt, because this meeting is, to a large extent, about readjusting to the new American era,” he said. “It’s a movement searching for compromises with the western world, led by the U.S.”

More on diplomacy and Egypt:

Egyptians seethe over murder in Germany

Obama speaks before 3,000, addresses a billion

The great Suez slowdown