New leaders, old ideas
There is no point, writes Mustafa El-Feki*
, in becoming excited over a change in leadership if it is not accompanied by a change in direction
The past few years have seen new leaderships emerge in many Arab countries, including Qatar, Jordan, Morocco, Bahrain, Syria, the UAE and Palestine. This, along with events in Iraq and other developments in the region, suggests that the Arab order is entering a new phase. One cannot help but remark that the leadership changes affecting more than half the countries of the Arab world came about through hereditary or hereditary-like succession rather than through structural changes in government, and there is a vast difference between the handover of power conducted and the rotation of authority institutionalised in such a manner as to engage the majority of citizens.
As much as we yearned for an injection of new and younger blood it was impossible to escape a sense of disappointment in the degree of change that followed the new leaders' rise to power.
It would be unfair to compare leaders who have only recently assumed the reins of government with their predecessors, tested over long years in power. We can hardly expect the fledglings to hold a candle to such seasoned politicians as King Hussein, President Hafez Al-Assad, King Hassan II, Sheikh Zayed and Yasser Arafat. Yet some of the new rulers have already introduced elements of liberalisation, in keeping with the reform drive to which Arab regimes have submitted out of varying degrees of necessity. We must also bear in mind the deterioration in the Arab order. The Arab world is like a large family that has begun to fall apart.
Yet these new leaders do provide a window through which we might be able to discern at least the contours of future policy, certainly as regards four major issues: the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Iraq, and the crises in Sudan and the Western Sahara.
The situation in the occupied Palestinian territories has deteriorated drastically in recent years as Israeli aggression escalated. The murder of children, the assassination of Palestinian political leaders, the demolition of Palestinian homes, the construction of the separation wall, new and unrestrained settlement activity and flagrant abuses of Palestinian human and political rights require a strong and unified Arab stance. I do not believe that the steadfastness of Hafez Al-Assad, the wisdom of King Hussein and the Islamic role played by King Hassan II have been consigned to the past. Indeed, it appears that their sons are attempting, on many levels, to tread the path of their fathers, though they have yet to acquire the political weight of their predecessors.
There are, too, indications that the new generation is prepared, when necessary, to move beyond the political legacies they were bequeathed. Bashar Al-Assad, for example, has declared himself ready to enter into negotiations with Israel without preconditions, a clear departure from his father's insistence upon resuming negotiations from the point he left off with Rabin. The opening up of the Syrian economy also indicates a healthy independence from tradition in Damascus. And Jordan's King Abdullah has demonstrated a political acumen towards the Palestinian question unexpected from someone who had been crown prince for only a day.
American involvement in Iraq remains a source of anxiety to the Middle East, all the more so because no end is in sight. When we consider the position of a country such as Jordan, wedged between two wars, one in Iraq and the other in Palestine, we can begin to appreciate its young king's dexterity in handling balances of power and keeping dangers to his country at bay. Syria's position is somewhat more complex given the Israeli drive to mobilise pressure from all directions. Syrian support for Hizbullah, Palestinian offices in Damascus are among the issues Israel has used to pressure Syria into bowing to its terms for peace. Although it is doubtful that Israel will succeed the situation in Iraq has undoubtedly compounded pressure on Syria.
But then events in Iraq have a profound and immediate impact on all countries in the Levant and the Gulf, and on Arab leaderships young and old. It is difficult to believe that Qatar and Bahrain, for example, would have taken such rapid steps towards liberalisation were it not for the ramifications of the US-led occupation of Iraq. Simultaneously, there is no doubt that the fall of Saddam Hussein, as abhorrent as his dictatorship was, rocked the balance of power in the region in favour of Israel.
The situation in southern Sudan is a result of the Arab World's habitual shortsightedness. For too long we have ignored the areas adjacent to sub-Saharan Africa. The poverty and depravation I saw during a recent visit to southern Sudan was appalling. The only visible contribution the Arabs have made to the inhabitants of southern Sudan appeared to be a mosque constructed by King Farouk, and the Kuwaiti Hospital in Juba. This remiss is particularly deplorable when we consider that the southern portion of Sudan is the Arab world's African gateway.
Just when a peaceful settlement to the Sudanese civil war appeared possible another nightmare scenario erupted. The crisis of Darfur in western Sudan has attracted the concern of the international community and stirred vehement condemnation in the international media. Sadly, on this issue new Arab leaders continue to tread all too familiar paths.
The question of the Western Sahara remains one of the most intractable Arab-African problems, as well as a long-lasting sore point between Algeria and Morocco. Rabat's reaction to South Africa's demand that it recognise the Saharan republic, combined with its withdrawal from inter-African cooperation within the framework of the OAU, underscores the potentially explosive situation in this corner of the Arab world.
The young Moroccan king may have acquired considerable popularity within a short time, yet he, like other rulers of his generation, still lacks the negotiating wiles of his father. As chairman of the Jerusalem Committee he is directly involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict, though given developments in Palestine it is difficult to determine what this will entail.
The mere arrival of "fresh blood" is not, I would suggest, an automatic precursor of substantial change. The political systems over which the new leaders preside must also change before the reforms and freedoms for which we yearn can actually become a reality. Arab summits now bring together two generations of leaders, mirroring the generational divide in the Arab world as a whole. Let us hope that they work towards injecting a fresh spirit into the handling of long-standing problems, while upholding established principles in advancing the realisation of Arab rights.
* The writer is chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the People's Assembly.