Arab League Turns On Itself

The Arab world is in a dilemma. Never before have internal dissension and the ills facing it been so numerous, mirrored in the just-concluded Arab summit in Tunis. Arab unity has never been legendary. Contradictions and discord have plagued the Arab League, older than the United Nations, almost since its inception in 1944.

With vague promises of political reform, concern about Arab bloodshed and a mood of powerlessness, heads of the 22-member Arab League publicly insisted that they had made history with their calls for human rights and modernization. But they did not say how or when such reforms would take place.

Contradictions crystallized in the league during the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq in 1990 – the occupation of one Arab country by another, which fueled the first Gulf War, and which Arabs were unable to avert. However, in its wake came the Madrid Conference, and the Oslo peace process between Israel and the Palestinians was launched. The Arab world was to some extent placated.

In 2000, the Palestinian Intifada began and the Arab world had to face afresh the challenge of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And the following year the events of September 11 occurred, which threw the Arab world into the worst turmoil it had ever faced. All 19 hijackers were Arabs, and 15 of them Saudis – citizens of the closest Arab ally of the United States in the Middle East. Then began the “war on terror,” which is perceived by many in the Arab world to be a war on Arabs and on Islam.

The war in Afghanistan that followed September 11, 2001, drew overwhelming sympathy for many of the innocent Afghan lives lost. Nevertheless, Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, whose regimes were dependent on the U.S. for political survival supported and aided the latter in its war against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Saudi Arabia was one of the only two countries to have ties with the Taliban (the other being Pakistan), and was reported to have provided $500 million to al-Qaeda. The Saudi regime spent millions on damage control and public relations, trying to improving its image in the United States.

Since Arab governments supported and aided the U.S. in its war against al-Qaeda and the Taliban, some positive returns in the form of support for the Palestinians – “the core issue in the hearts of everybody in the Middle East,” as King Abdullah of Jordan said last week in an interview to Newsweek – was expected in the region, to placate their own populations. Things turned out to be otherwise.

The Israel-Palestine conflict escalated, with Israel declaring its “own war on terror.” Images flashed by Aljazeera and other Arab TV channels had the Arab public seething with anger. Huge demonstrations were witnessed throughout the Arab world, money was donated for the Palestinian cause, and Arab governments were expected to take some action to halt the conflict. Therefore, at the Arab summit in Beirut in 2002, the Arab League presented the Saudi peace plan, which provided for Arab recognition of Israel in return for the latter’s withdrawal from all occupied Arab lands. Israel refused to accept the plan and continued its military operation against the Palestinians. The Arabs were unable to lobby the U.S. to stop all violence and accept the plan. They were even unable to pressure the U.S. and Israel into allowing the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Yasser Arafat to attend the Beirut summit, although the topic on the agenda was the Palestinian issue.

The same summit also “categorically” rejected and warned against any attack on Iraq, which would be seen as “a security threat to the Arab states. We demand the respect of Iraq’s independence, sovereignty, security and unity.”

But almost exactly a year later, in March 2003, the Arab League convened a summit when it was clear that a military operation by the U.S. against Iraq was imminent. Unable to avert war, states such as Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain began extending their facilities to the U.S. military. Pandemonium broke out, with the Kuwaiti and Iraqi delegates hurling abuse at each other. A few days later, Operation Iraqi Freedom was launched. The Arabs had as usual failed to deliver. Ghada Karmi, a London-based Arab writer, commented: “This … exposes as diplomatic froth the meetings of the Arab League … that claimed a unified Arab rejection of aggression against Iraq.”

Today, the Arab world is faced with two flash points in the region – the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is ever escalating, and the quagmire in Iraq, where the occupation forces have no exit strategy to date. Added to that have been the call by the U.S. for Arab states to reform and start a process of modernization and democratization, as underlined in a speech last November by U.S. President George W. Bush calling for a Greater Middle East Initiative. Though the initial reaction to the proposal in the Arab press and Arab world was negative, Arab liberals and intellectuals had long been calling for change.

Dr. Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian legislator who was then spokesperson of the Arab League, said in 2002: “If the Arab world does not change by its own will, then it will be changed. If there is no peaceful transition to democracy, it will take place violently. There is a public opinion in the Arab world that is simmering … for serious change and reform.”

In September 2000, prominent Syrian intellectuals issued an “Intellectuals’ Manifesto” to their government, which called for such reforms as an end to one-party rule, a return to civil society, and a release of all political prisoners.

Similarly, intellectuals in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Kuwait, and other Arab countries had long been calling for changes and reforms within their societies. Eten Mahcupyan, a columnist with the Turkish daily Zaman, wrote in an article on May 5 that there is “a clear-cut dilemma in Arab societies: People are [caught] in between the anger directed against the aggressive and authoritarian U.S. policy, and the rising energy against the authoritarian administrations of their own states.”

This March, Egypt, Jordan, Qatar, Yemen and Tunisia submitted proposals to the Arab League and the Arab summit, seen to be an effort to counter reform initiatives that may be imposed from outside.

Yet the Arab League had to cancel this summit. The extent of fractiousness was revealed when the reasons cited were disagreements among members on key agenda items, such as a U.S. reform plan for the region and the two-year-old Arab peace initiative for Israel.

The summit was ultimately convened this past weekend, when events had become particular harrowing. The crisis in both core issues had deepened. Israel conducted military operations in the Gaza Strip that last week left about 42 Palestinians dead, many of them children, over just three days, and destroyed scores of Palestinian homes in southern Gaza in a bid to stop weapons smuggling from Egypt to the Strip. The action was condemned by the international community, including the U.S. In Iraq, the abuse of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison had come to light against the backdrop of Sunni insurgency and Shi’ite militias battling the occupation forces.

Meanwhile, Bush endorsed a plan proposed by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel to retain many Jewish settlements in the West Bank and to reject the right of return of Palestinian refugees to Israel.

The enormous loss of Iraqi civilian lives in both Fallujah and Najaf, the humiliation of Iraqi prisoners and the destruction and killings in Gaza – the pictures of Arab humiliation – enraged the Arab world, hardening both Sunni and Shi’ite opinion against the U.S. occupation in Iraq and U.S. backing for Israel’s policies in the Palestinian territories.

The Arab regimes are also under pressure – if on one hand they have the example of Saddam Hussein and his fate at U.S. hands, there is also the memory of president Anwar Sadat of Egypt and his assassination at the hands of internal dissidents for being too pro-American and pro-Israel. The regimes are viewed as being impotent, unable either to avert or quell the negative trends in the region.

“This is a summit of terrified leaders who want to protect their regimes from internal and external calls for reform,” Abd al-Bari Atwan, editor of London-based al-Quds al-Arabi, told on the eve of the summit. It was as expected – the summit was strong on rhetoric, short on action, condemning the US and Israel, without proposing concrete measures to check their actions in the region.

While many common people may have hoped for some concrete results, the summit went largely as political analysts and followers of Arab events expected. Sami Moubayed, a Syrian political analyst who has specialized on the modern Middle East, feels that the Arab governments are terrified at the prospect of a fate similar to Saddam’s befalling them. “It [Arab League] is dealing with a disunited, corrupt, weak and frightened Arab command that is still in shock from what happened to Saddam Hussein.”

So although Jordanian Foreign Minister Jamil al-Muasher called it a successful summit, Moubayed feels the “summit was terrible” and this was expected as it was “postponed, and hovered on the edge of being called off altogether, due to disagreement among our leaders. After all, eight leaders did not show up. The league is a dead organization – with little to no authority in the Arab world.”

The U.S. was criticized for imposing sanctions on Syria, under the Syrian Accountability Act, but beyond that no action was proposed. There was a minute of silence for the victims of the Rafah carnage and a call for an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, and condemnation of Israel’s actions in the Palestinian territories, but no pressure was put on Egypt or Jordan to break ties with Israel.

As Atwan had predicted: “Palestine means confronting the U.S., and the Arab regimes cannot afford to do that.” There was also condemnation of the abuse of prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison and calls for the United Nations to play a greater role, without any Arab plans being presented for a solution to the Iraqi occupation and the spiraling violence.

A 13-point plan was adopted, the first of its kind, which will form the basis of the “New Middle East,” but on the insistence of Syria the word “reform” was removed and replaced with “development and modernization.” Though the plan has been adopted, a mechanism to implement it has not been.

Tunisian Foreign Minister Habib Ben Yahia explained: “It has been done in a way that it is a homegrown process, because the reforms are from within the countries … according to our own culture and our own terms of reference.”

This may yet result in non-implementation of reforms or slow-paced ones, and the adoption of such a plan may be to deflect U.S. pressure to impose a plan on the region. After all, the United States will discuss its plans for a new Middle East at the upcoming summit of the Group of Eight (G8) nations, where it will seek support from the other members for its plans.

It may also be a bid to deflect Arab pressure on the issues of Palestine and Iraq. Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi provided some drama by walking out in response to league secretary general Amr Moussa’s rebuttal of Arab states that act unilaterally – thought to be a veiled reference to Libya’s renunciation of weapons of mass destruction – again testifying to Arab disunity.

In short, the summit was unable to come up with any solutions for the many woes facing the Arab world. So why do Arab League summits usually end up paying nothing but lip service to Arab issues? “The Arab League, in a sense, cannot move ahead of the nature of the Arab states themselves. The problem of the Arab states [is] the nature of the regimes, centralized systems, no system of accountability, so the regimes can fail time and again and still remain in power,” argued Dr. Ashrawi.

So the Arab world will simply have to watch and wait for the next Arab summit, or the start of the reform process, whichever comes first.

Aditi Bhaduri is a columnist based in India.

Copyright 2004 Asia Times Online Ltd. This article first appeared in Asia Times Online, and is republished with permission.