18 - 24 November 1999
Issue No. 456
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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'What will be the shape of the Arab world?'By Dina Ezzat
Egypt is preoccupied with the future of the Middle East. Political arrangements and settlements are an open question; security is a worry; economic relations are a concern; and future inter-Arab ties are all but clear-cut.
Speaking to hundreds of students, diplomats and staff at Cairo University late last week, Foreign Minister Amr Moussa raised a pressing question: "Assuming that the scenario of peace between the Arabs and Israel prevails -- not excluding the possibility that events could take a different course -- what next? Assuming that the Arab-Israeli conflict comes to an end, an acceptable settlement is reached, and things are somehow normalised; what next?"
Moussa did not appear willing to offer an answer -- at least not just yet. The foreign minister merely alluded to the difficult circumstances in which Egypt is likely to find itself -- with or without a comprehensive settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Israel may make peace, but will Tel Aviv abandon its insistence on absolute nuclear superiority? Referring to Israel as one of three countries in the region that are "knocking on the door of the nuclear club", Moussa did not hide Egypt's irritation with Israel's ambiguous nuclear status. "The Middle East cannot have one nuclear state. It may live with two nuclear states, but certainly not one. To have a single nuclear state would mean that it will control[the entire region," said Moussa. He added: "This should not be tolerated in the first place. [Opposing it] is a responsibility that should be passed from one generation to the next."
Meanwhile, the foreign minister warned that "there can be no talk of a regional order while [one state possesses] nuclear weapons." The countries of the region should be talking about [nuclear status] "now, not later".
In another allusion to future security arrangements, Moussa emphasised Egypt's strict opposition to the concept of regional alliances "be they strategic, military or secret". Alluding to ambiguous Turkish-Israeli military ties, he explained: "We cannot and shall not approve of, nor should we even tolerate" such alliances in the Middle East. "Our position was clear on that issue and it will be so again if need be," he added. According to the foreign minister, "any such alliances would unequivocally target Arab national security."
But could the future of Arab national security not be undermined by inter-Arab disputes? Moussa seemed willing to admit that Arab relations are beset by problems graver than appearances would suggest. "Does it make sense that there are Arab countries that oppose the convening of an Arab summit?" he asked rhetorically.
Such disputes, however, cannot be considered independently of inter-Arab relations in general. Indeed, said the foreign minister, these relations have revolved around the Palestinian issue for the past 50 years. "The very charter of the Arab League was [inspired] by the Palestinian issue. The same applies to the concept of Arab solidarity. It came into existence and proved to be efficient or inefficient, depending on developments in the Palestinian issue," said Moussa.
Now, the Palestinian issue seems to be approaching a settlement. "Assuming that the Middle East problem is solved, how will we deal with the issue of Arab national security? What kind of regional arrangements can bring us together? What will be the shape of the Arab world?"
The Arabs, Moussa advised, should look beyond the peace process. They need to think of, and work on, building inter-Arab economic ties, "solid common interests" that will bind them together.
But what if the Palestinian issue remained unsolved? After all nobody, including Moussa, can guarantee that the peace process will yield a settlement that is acceptable to both Arabs and Israelis. Moussa, who says that he "can expect" a settlement within the next five years, does not rule out the possibility of the alternative scenario: no settlement in the foreseeable future.
After 50 years of managing the conflict with Israel, through war and peace, the Arabs are not going to sign "a peace at any price", he said. A peaceful settlement, the foreign minister insisted, should grant the Palestinians their state, the Syrians their occupied territories, and the Lebanese control over southern Lebanon.
"The Israeli government is talking peace -- which was lacking with the previous Israeli government. But what counts is for this Israeli government to match words with action," Moussa maintained.
Is this likely to happen? The minister did not commit himself to an answer. However, he hinted that he was not very optimistic. "It is a positive step for Israel to implement the agreed upon withdrawals from occupied Palestinian territories. Coupling these withdrawals with illegal settlement-building in the occupied territories, however, means that we move one step forward only to take one step back," he added. "We had hoped that before this year came to an end we would be able to establish a comprehensive peace between the Arabs and Israel, but 1999 is coming to an end and there is no final settlement around the corner". Finally, "Israel says a final settlement could be reached by the end of 2000. This can happen if there is good faith. But what the settlement-building policy represents is bad faith... The Arabs are not going to be fooled by words," he warned.
The future of the Middle East, however, is not just about the Arab-Israeli conflict and its impact on inter-Arab ties. It is also about Iraq and what the world community -- including the Arabs -- is going to do about it. It is also about Sudan and the efforts to end civil strife there. It is about Iran and its relations with its Arab neighbours.
Moussa also admitted that the ever-increasing impact of globalisation had to be taken into account. "We are living in a world that is highly disturbed; it is not just the Middle East... We are witnessing the beginning of the new world order -- the order of globalisation... Under this order, the various countries will have to interact according to certain rules that may not necessarily be in the interest of Third World countries and societies," he concluded.