The power of three
An effective Arab action plan is more urgent than ever. Soha Abdelaty reports
An Arab power triangle put their efforts together this week to formulate the latest of a series of regional reform initiatives. On the heels of a regional tour by Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah that included Syria, Egypt and Morocco, officials from Cairo, Riyadh and Damascus held meetings Sunday and Monday in Cairo to devise a proposal to reform the Arab League.
Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher met on Monday with his Saudi and Syrian counterparts, Saud Al-Faisal and Farouk Al-Shara'a respectively, to work the details of the working paper which was then put forward to the leaders of the three countries. President Hosni Mubarak, Abdullah and President Bashar Al-Assad have yet to decide on the best forum to discuss the working paper with other Arab leaders. The upcoming Arab summit in Tunis in March 2004 is one option, but there is also rumour of an extraordinary special summit to discuss regional reform plans in general.
Egyptian officials are refraining from giving details of the working plan. Nonetheless, they said that the main goal of the working plan is to find the best mechanisms to make the League a more effective body that has the power to enforce its decisions. The working paper incorporates not only the Egyptian and Saudi initiatives for Arab League (proposed in the last few months) but also ideas put forward by other Arab countries.
The league has come under fire lately after its incapacity to play a meaningful role in peacefully resolving the crisis in Iraq. It has also been hit with the familiar accusation of standing by idly while Israeli aggression continues against the Palestinian people. Officials from all three countries are saying their working plan aims to prevent such Arab paralysis in the face of future crises.
"The working plan answers the numerous questions posed by Arab citizens about what has been impeding joint Arab action," Maher said after the trilateral meeting on Monday. "We wanted to contribute positively to fulfilling the hopes of everyone who is asking where are the Arabs and who believe the Arabs are incapable of achieving anything," he continued. The only body capable of organising joint Arab action is the Arab League, and therefore it has to be supported and strengthened, argued Maher.
In addition, the key to living up to the Arab street's aspirations, according to the Egyptian minister, is a "commitment to Arab positions and decisions" and those countries who lag behind in this "should bear the responsibility" of not living up to their pledges. While Maher would not go into the details of how the league would enforce its decisions, the Egyptian initiative for Arab League reform, published two weeks ago, suggests that one way to do this is the creation of an Arab Security Council.
Arab League reform was the main focus of the meetings this week between officials from the three countries. However, Israeli intransigence in its roadmap obligations and the newly appointed Iraqi Governing Council (GC) also loomed over the talks. The Egyptian-Saudi summit between Mubarak and Abdullah on Sunday and Monday also discussed the recent escalation of tensions between Hizbullah and Israel in southern Lebanon. Egyptian and Saudi officials feel Israel is trying to renounce its commitments to the roadmap and will thus look to Washington and the international community to stop Israel from aggravating the regional situation. Mubarak, Maher and Chief Political Advisor Osama El-Baz met with US Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs William Burns on Monday to reiterate this message.
"At the same time that there is a strong US commitment to implement the roadmap, there are also Israeli provocative attempts that seek to sabotage this," Maher said on Monday. Maher also said after his meeting with Burns that there is a US understanding for the threat to peace efforts posed by recent Israeli actions, such as the fence construction and the incursions into Palestinian cities.
The threat to the fragile cease-fire was amplified on Tuesday after two bombings in Tel Aviv claimed by Hamas, one of the organisations party to the cease- fire agreement. Maher, however, warned Israel on Tuesday against retaliating "because it will not solve the matter nor will it achieve security or peace. They [Israelis] have tried escalating matters before and it did not achieve security or peace."
For his part, Burns restated his government's commitment to the peace plan. "The United States is determined to work with both parties on each of the issues and each of the obligations in the roadmap," the US official said after meeting Mubarak. "There are clearly some important points that need to be pursued with regard to freedom of movement for Palestinians and with regard to continued settlement construction activity. President Bush has made clear our concerns with regard to the separation wall." Israel has not yet ceased construction of the fence separating most of the West Bank from Israel and numerous Jewish settlements on the West Bank, despite international objections. Nonetheless Maher sounded an optimistic note, saying "the campaign against the building of this fence that is intended to grab more Palestinian land seems to have had an effect."
Burns also discussed the sensitive issue of Iraq with Mubarak. The US official asked Arab governments "to support the political process that Iraqis have started now with the formation of the governing council to move to draft a constitution, to hold elections, and to form a fully sovereign government and reintegrate Iraq into the region, which is deeply in the interests in the United States as well as Egypt."
For their part, Egyptian officials are steering clear of giving the GC their blessing prematurely. "It's impossible to acknowledge the legitimacy of this council," Maher said on Monday. "But we are willing to receive and have a dialogue with members of this council, or any other representative of the various political Iraqi factions, in their personal capacity," he affirmed. Egyptian officials feel that the GC is not the representative of the Iraqi people and thus refuse to deal with it as such. "The Iraqi GC acquires its authority from the occupying forces which created it and has very limited powers which can be taken away from it at any moment," Maher said on Saturday. For now, the only support they are willing to give to Iraq is on the economic front, in the reconstruction efforts.
Not only is Egypt looking for the speedy transition of power to the Iraqi people, it also wishes to see the UN play a central role in that process. Maher met the UN representative in Iraq Sergio de Mello on Saturday to discuss possible means by which the UN can play a more effective role. There has been talk lately of a new Security Council (SC) resolution drawing out this UN role, but de Mello told reporters after meeting with Maher that "this is still very much down the road." While the Iraqi people wish to see an expanded UN role, it will depend on consultations between SC members, he added. De Mello said he had come to Egypt to explain to Egyptian officials what the UN has been doing in Iraq, and the process that led to the formation of the GC and why the council should "be given a chance by the Arab governments".