Al-Ahram Weekly Online   10 - 16 April 2008
Issue No. 892
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Gamil Mattar

Arab cooperation adjourned

Unremarkable and facile: leadership is what is lacking in the Arab regional order, writes Gamil Mattar*

Nobody left happy; nobody left sad. Such was the outcome for the heads of state that made a personal appearance at the Arab summit and to the delegates of those that did not, and to those who had secretly prayed it would fail and to those who indulged for days afterwards in the flush of the illusion of its success. Even Condi and Cheney weren't happy. The Syrians had not been isolated and the boycott of the summit, which the Bush administration had banked on and maybe even pushed for, was not as big as it had hoped. Most participants departed in pretty much the same mood in which they had arrived. They had learned the lessons from the history of Arab summits and nothing new has occurred in the Arab world or abroad to alter or diminish in any way the validity of these lessons. That history teaches us the following:

Arab rulers are as unmovable as mountains when it comes to their own interests. Nothing at home -- not the strongest legacy of popular anger -- or abroad -- not the strongest alliances with the mightiest nations on earth -- can convince them to change their methods of rule and to alter those long established policies upon which rest the ruling classes. As a consequence, the reform drive quickly lost whatever impetus it had following that extremely brief interlude in which the Arab people felt a new surge of hope and Western governments felt a burst of confidence in the intentions of Arab governments.

Contrary to what many in the Arab world and abroad believe, no Arab government or group of governments has ever stuck to the letter of a boycott or decision to isolate or punish a fellow member of the Arab League. Whenever the League or its Council of Ministers adopted a resolution to boycott or otherwise sanction a member, members invariably kept their back doors open. This was the case when Amman was being sanctioned for King Abdullah's bid to annex Palestinian territories to Trans-Jordan, when Tunisia's President Bourguiba incurred the anger of some League members for his so-called Jericho statements, and when the majority of the League decided to vent their wrath against President El-Sadat following his conclusion of a separate peace with Israel at Camp David. In fact, in the case of the severest collective outrage, which was directed at Iraq following its invasion of Kuwait, the Arab League's members' commitment to the boycott of Baghdad did not last long even though that measure was brought into effect by an international resolution and the supreme will of the world's superpower.

Some of us political analysts and observers of public opinion get somewhat annoyed at hearing a conference participant angrily or sarcastically inveigh against the summit in front of the summit. What many fail to realise that this form of behaviour has become de rigueur in Arab conferences and is perhaps one of the qualities for which Arab summits stand out among other regional and international conferences. Evidently, Arab leaders have come to enjoy such self-criticism or ridicule, perhaps as a form of entertainment to punctuate the endless hours of wearisome boredom. After about 10 extraordinary summits and 20 ordinary ones, it is obvious that a show of self-flagellation has become a habitual summit routine. One is particularly struck by the frequency with which those of our leaders that choose to participate in a summit utter such remarks such as "Our brother Arabs are responsible for ... " or "Our brother Arabs have failed to live up to their agreement." It is only natural for all present or watching to look around and ask whether there are two types of Arabs in the Arab world: Arabs who renege and Arabs who commit. Or could it simply be that there are Arab Arabs, not-so-Arab Arabs, and "un-Arab" Arabs?

From an extensive reading of the history of Arab summits I have come up with a rule that is at once simple and complex, which is that this Arab institution epitomises the convergence of two prominent antitheses in Arab political behaviour. Collective Arab policies as expressed through such summits exhibit a superb self-assurance, especially when producing resolutions or statements condemning Israeli aggression or referring to Iran's expansionist intentions. The summits betray no fear or anxiety on this score or that, perhaps due to the confidence in the external factor that would certainly intervene to forestall the danger from this source or that. At the same time, however, one reads between the lines a total lack of self-assurance with regard to the attitudes of the Arab people, whether on the question of Israeli aggression or Iranian expansionism. In this domain, foreign alliances and international reassurances are of little avail, while the gap grows ever broader between overconfidence in the external factor and diminishing confidence in the domestic factor -- at least that component that consists of the opposition and resistance movements.

Over the course of the evolution of the Arab regional order there were various shifts in the pecking order of regional power centres. It is impossible here to compare the various phases. However, it is interesting to note that in the current phase, and perhaps for the first time in the history of this order, traditional "hierarchies" seem to have broken down. The recent Arab summit is not the first, nor will it be the last, summit to convene in the absence of a state or group of states to orchestrate it. The NATO summit held in Bucharest some days ago seemed, to some observers at least, to lack for the first time in NATO history a clear and influential "command group". The same applies to the African summits held in recent years. In spite of its efforts, albeit never founded on a realistic base of feasibility and principle, Libya has not succeeded in forging an African leadership or command structure consisting of itself among others. The African order is thus following in the footsteps of the Arab order, contrary to the Latin American regional order where, over recent years, a "steering group" or vanguard has begun to coalesce consisting of a number of emerging nations with the resolve and resources to press for change and to enhance the continent's international role and profile.

Few and far between are those leaders at Arab summits who do not feel deep down inside that what happens in a neighbouring Arab country, let alone a more remote one, is not their concern. An Arab leader might decide, one day, that Lebanon, for example, is too much of a bother and that there are more important domestic issues to take care of. He turns around and finds that his fellow Arab leaders have done exactly the same, leaving Lebanon to its "fate". Then, before long, they realise they had better rush back to Lebanon, by which time, of course, it is too late because others have moved in instead. Naturally, come summit time, these leaders are silently kicking themselves. To take another example, at some point Iraq stopped being a matter of concern to all Arabs. Others -- countries, groups and individuals -- flooded in; some came from countries that had officially turned their backs on Iraq, others from countries that have an interest in the power and security vacuum in Iraq. A third case in point is Palestine, where Arab leaders intervene, refrain from intervening, pick up the ball again, drop it, and then drag themselves back into the field with a flagrant lack of confidence and ability. They tried in Riyadh, in Cairo, in Sanaa, but they failed primarily because they had abandoned the places they had once occupied and these empty places beckoned others to fill them. One fears that the situation is only going to get worse in view of the increasing difficulty of changing existing policies and existing politicians and of producing a new vision for collective Arab action and Arab regional security, and in view of the increasing opportunities for forces operating below the level of Arab governments -- or above the level of Arab governments -- to engineer the type of changes that they are seeking.

No one is presiding over the Arab regional order. In other words, we have no real rotating system whereby one country chairs the summit and then the Arab nation for a year, after which the seat passes to another. We are not Europe and never will be. As I said about Damascus and other summits, the principle of rotation is no more than a trinket we imported from abroad in order to improve the image of our institutions. Certainly not a single country in the Arab world has exercised that function, mostly because none of the other countries would have let it since that principle was officially adopted for Arab summits. There are many reasons why this principle has never been applied. Some are religious, others historical, and yet others -- and I would suggest that these are the most influential -- have to do with the status differences between the sets of Arab ruling classes.

The 20th Arab summit has drawn to a close. No Arab party emerged stronger than it had been before the summit or weaker. It was neither a "moderates' summit" nor an "extremists' summit". It met without falling apart and without letting others sabotage it. It did not break the stalemate in Lebanon, nor was it affected by that stalemate. In its wake, Iran was more firmly convinced that the Arabs do not appreciate the peril of the strategic vacuum in their regional order and Israel felt even more secure in its resolve to complete the Judaisation of Palestine. The Arabs emerged with a summit institution intact but little else.

* The writer is director of the Arab Centre for Development and Futuristic Research.

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