Al-Ahram Weekly Online   10 - 16 August 2006
Issue No. 807
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Resounding failure

No matter how the current war in the Middle East unfolds, Arab despots are believed to be the big losers, Sherine Bahaa reports

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An infant girl holds up a Moroccan flag in Casablanca during a demonstration in support of Hizbullah and opposing Israeli aggression on Lebanon that drew tens of thousands onto the streets.

Footage of innocent children killed under the debris of Israeli air raids, of women crying over their lost children, of scenes of horror and carnage all over the place, continue. Casualties are rising by the day, mostly women and children; more than one million are displaced. Dubbed the Switzerland of the East, the Lebanese capital, rebuilt over the past 15 years, was turned into rubble in a matter of weeks.

All this happened without any meaningful reaction from Arab official quarters. Arab leaders implicitly lined up with Washington, their muted support for the aggression resounding throughout the Arab world, leading people everywhere to boiling point.

"Even if Israel were to kill or capture Hizbullah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, and destroy every Hizbullah rocket, Hizbullah has won by holding out for a month and inflicting serious damage on Israel... Hizbullah's victory may do less damage to Israel than to other Arab regimes," said Jonathan Steele in an editorial in The Guardian.

The latest Israeli aggression has sent shockwaves throughout the Arab world, threatening to radicalise even more angry masses, driving more people to believe that military confrontation is their opted alternative.

In talking about official Arab responses, one can clearly distinguish two different groups. The first comprising Syria and Iran, who had been supportive of Hizbullah from the very beginning. The second comprising mainly Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia -- the three US allies -- though also including some other states.

Never before have the countries of the second group refrained from offering support to Arab victims of Israeli aggression. This time, the officials of the three key Arab countries were quick to issue statements declaring their condemnation of Hizbullah, describing its action as "risky and uncalculated adventurism". However, the steadfastness of the resistance and the anger on the Arab streets forced the leaders of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan to amend their statements, so that they could simultaneously blame Israel but definitely without granting any kind of support to the resistance.

Until Arab foreign ministers met in Beirut on Monday, 27 days after the invasion, most Arab regimes found no need whatsoever for an emergency summit. Arab leaders even refrained from sending any top level official to attend the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) meeting in Kuala Lumpur last weekend.

"This Arab defeat provided Israel with its first line of defence, giving it the chance to increase its brutal attack on the Lebanese and Palestinian peoples," said Tarek El-Beshri, renowned Egyptian jurist and historian.

Arab governments coupled their support for a ceasefire with the call for the disarming of Hizbullah and the extension of Lebanese government authority throughout the country -- which happen to be the same Israeli demands, rejected by Hizbullah.

Most Arab leaders refused to acknowledge the victory achieved by the resistance over the past month -- an accomplishment Arab armies, which have used up large portions of their countries' budgets, failed to do.

Two days after the Qana II massacre, in which more than 60 Lebanese women and children were killed, the Egyptian president, in his speech to the nation, mentioned "the Israeli invasion" more than 10 times, but refrained from describing Hizbullah as freedom fighters or a legitimate resistance force, or even from pointing at their achievements so far.

By contrast, the Arab masses took to the streets of almost every Arab capital, raising the yellow banners of Hizbullah, dubbing Nasrallah the Arab hero who succeeded in preserving Arab dignity after years of humiliation and submission.

Indeed, the gap between the masses and the regimes is widening. "When the Arabs lose confidence in their regimes, they have to choose one of two options: either resorting to radicalism in all its forms, on the top of which is religious -- that is, violence and terrorism -- or else moral extremism -- that is, losing faith in any sort of reform -- thus leaving behind all issues related to pan-Arabism, nationalism or even humanism," said Ibrahim Darraj, professor of international law at Damascus University.

Arab peoples are searching for a glimmer of hope but there is none, either on the domestic front or on the foreign one, where the foreign policies adopted by Arab regimes drive people to despair.

"Why do you think Arab countries cannot play the oil card to curb US and Israeli aggression? Because simply we cannot afford it," said Khaled Dakhil, a Saudi analyst. "Oil is the major source of our national income in the Gulf. All developmental projects which took place over the past century have failed -- this is the other side of Arab despair."

Dakhil argues that there are other options than either joining the war or imposing an oil embargo. "I believe that there is no consensus among the Arabs regarding what can be done to support the Lebanese people in their heroic fight against the Israelis other than these two options."

Meanwhile, the domestic scene inside Arab capitals is very gloomy: no progress on the democratic level, the economy is stagnant, unemployment has reached its highest level, human rights violations and the marginalisation of civil society continue to rise. "That not one Arab leader thought of appeasing his public, is it not strange?" Dakhil exclaimed.

To understand the Arab regimes' position on organisations like Hamas or Hizbullah, Islamisation is the keyword. Arab leaders dread the mere thought of a victorious Hizbullah that might constitute the beginning of the end to their puppet regimes. They could not withstand the possibility of radicalised citizens in their societies, whose response may be simply embracing Islamist politics.

Another aspect is that Arab leaders have warned more than once of a the growing influence of Iranian Shia in the region. Last year, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak charged that the Shias of Iraq are more loyal to Iran than to their own country. The year before, King Abdullah of Jordan publicly warned of a "Shia crescent". Saudis are aggravated by the fact that the substantial Shia minority in the kingdom is concentrated almost entirely in the oil-producing Eastern province, just across the Gulf from Iran.

Irking though this is for the leaders of the kingdom, some conservative Wahabi scholars have taken the initiative of defending Hizbullah, and the Shia more generally, against fatwa s issued by other prominent Wahabi scholars like Abdul- Mohsen Al-Obeikan.

Thus it is mainly the Saudi royal family that is worried about the support Hizbullah is winning within the predominantly Wahabi religious establishment. According to Saudi sources, the ruling family believes it cannot afford to allow any rapprochement between the Sunni Salafists and Saudi Shia.

This is not only confined to Saudi Arabia. A Hizbullah success would further encourage Shia assertiveness in other countries and hence promote Iranian power and influence. Some observers, however, argue that it is not so much about sectarian conflict as it is about the politics of regional hegemony.

According to Dakhil, Arab regimes feel threatened by a Shia axis, but " why has it not occurred to them that the rise of Iranian influence is mainly due to the absence of any substantial Arab role?"

Furthermore, the victory achieved thus far by Hizbullah has dropped many of the long inherent myths in the region like the one regarding the invincibility of the Israeli army and the impossibility of disobeying US dictates. "Such myths proved to be false after what has taken place on the ground in Lebanon," confirmed Dakhil.

"Why are the Arabs adopting this feeble position? Is there any country more dependent on the US than Israel? Their relationship is much more than dependence: it is an existential relationship but still they maintain their strong positions vis-à- vis the US, they even spy on them. Why can't we do half of this and still maintain a friendly relation with the US?" asked Dakhil.

Most Arab regimes care more about their survival and self- preservation than about the development of their own people. It was somehow ironic that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, following his attack on Israel and the recalling of his ambassador to Tel Aviv, emerged as the most popular leader within the Arab world.

The Arab people dream of similar strong stances by their leaders, unlikely as this may be. "The foreign policy of Arab regimes is dictated by the West in such a way as to leave them no option but to acquiesce," Beshri reiterated.

While recalling his ambassador, Chavez described the Jewish state's campaign in Lebanon as a "new genocide," adding in a weekly broadcast to the nation that "Israel has gone mad [...] doing the same thing to the Palestinian and Lebanese people that they have criticised -- and with reason -- the Holocaust for. But this is a new Holocaust," Chavez said.

The question that cries for an answer at this moment, according to Dakhil, is "How could the Arab regimes display such weakness? Are they so senile not to comprehend the consequences of all this?"

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