Al-Ahram Weekly Online   25 February - 3 March 2010
Issue No. 987
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Hassan Nafaa

Another lame summit

Without the collective political resolve necessary to face imminent regional challenges, the annual Arab summit will remain a pointless exercise, writes Hassan Nafaa*

This year's Arab summit, scheduled to be held in the Libyan capital 27-28 March, is unlikely to spark great excitement in an Arab public that has grown weary of how ineffectual Arab summits are. If the Arab League suffered a severe setback when it froze Egypt's membership and moved its headquarters to Tunis in the late 1970s, it nevertheless proved unable to recover quickly after Egypt's membership was reactivated and the headquarters was moved back to Cairo in the late 1980s. The amendment of the Arab League Charter in 2000 so as to provide for regular summit meetings revived the hope that this major regional institution would resume an effective role in regional and international affairs. Unfortunately, practical experience over the past 10 years has left no shadow of doubt that the "periodicity" of summits was not the key to injecting enough vigour in the organisation and to stimulate some improvement in the quality of Arab collective action. Indeed, the inter-Arab situation had sunk so low that the very convening of a summit was tantamount to a major achievement.

Consider, for example, how much time and effort the head of state with the honour of presiding over a forthcoming summit has to put in just to clear the air in the Arab world and broker truces that will last long enough to permit for the meeting to take place and, hopefully, for the formalities to proceed without embarrassing flare-ups of tempers, even if nothing substantial comes out in the end. Arab summits, thus, have become a mechanism of bureaucratic necessity instead of an instrument for organising collective responses to the challenges that face the Arab world. Is it any wonder that, in spite of the regularity of Arab summits, the state of the Arab world has steadily gone from bad to worse?

The long-standing Palestinian rift shows no sign whatsoever of an immanent solution. The situation in Iraq is as tense as ever and could turn in any direction, including a civil war that tears the country apart into three petty states shaped by ethnic or sectarian affiliations. The future of Sudan is looking very grim now that it appears that the approaching referendum in South Sudan will favour secession, while the political and humanitarian crisis in Darfur raises the spectre of yet further fragmentation of the country. In Somalia, civil war not only continues to rage after many years, it is escalating because of the perpetual inability of local, regional and international parties to furnish a climate conducive to containing it. True, the news from Yemen and Lebanon is somewhat heartening. The Houthi crisis, which seemed about to turn Yemen into yet another failed state in the Arab world, has abated, and the once intractable Lebanese crisis now shows signs of hope. Nevertheless, the situations in these two countries remain shaky and here, as elsewhere in the region, we will have to hold our breath until the Arab regional order begins to regain consciousness and recovers from its chronic infirmity.

Since Arab countries are entirely immersed in domestic problems, it is unlikely that they will be able to focus on issues related to collective Arab action. In other words, the forthcoming Arab summit will convene at one of the lowest ebbs in the Arab order and at a time in which an effective summit is more essential than ever. At the very least, summit participants need to rise to three of the gravest challenges facing the Arab world.

The first is the conflict with Israel now that the so-called peace process has reached a dead end. As there is little point in clinging to this process in light of the current balances of power, the Arab world needs to change its approach to its management of the Arab-Israeli conflict. After decades of pinning their hopes on a change in attitude in Israel and the US, only to find out (over and again) that these hopes were based on illusions, it is time for the Arabs to depend on their own resources. But if this new approach is to work, Arab countries must show that they can stick to a unified position and will not accept less than the conditions they laid out in the Arab peace initiative that was formally adopted in the Beirut Arab summit. In addition, they most show that they are willing and capable of mobilising their own forces and resources behind this position that they have defined as their bottom line.

The US and Israel have long taken it for granted that the Arabs are divided and that what they say in public is vastly different from their separate confidences behind closed doors. Nothing would be more guaranteed to shake their adversaries out of their complacency than for them to now break with their usual behaviour. The Arabs should therefore send out an unequivocally clear message to the effect that if, within a period of, say, three months, their conditions are not accepted as a basis for negotiations, they will withdraw the Arab peace initiative and adopt a new position. I have no doubt that the Arabs could fundamentally alter the terms of the current equation if they declared, at the end of that deadline, that they renounced the two-state solution and supported, instead, the solution of a single state covering the whole of historic Palestine in which all inhabitants would be guaranteed full and equal rights as citizens, regardless of ethnic or religious affiliation.

The second challenge involves the Arab relationship with Iran against the backdrop of the escalation in the confrontation between Tehran and the West and the prospect of a war that could spill over into the rest of the region. Surely the Arabs should realise that any escalation in that crisis is not in their interests and that Israel is the chief instigator. This is not to deny that some Arab countries are rightfully worried by certain Iranian policies; however, the Arabs should handle these issues through direct talks with Iran, rather than by means of threats of war or sanctions delivered by proxy. As irksome as Iranian behaviour can be, Arab governments in that particular region should bear in mind that they are not out of firing range in the event of a war between Iran and the West or Iran and Israel, even if they had no hand in provoking it.

I have no doubt that Israel and the US would very much like to embroil the Arabs in a war against Iran. As it would be difficult for Arab governments to prevent the US from attacking Iran from American bases on Arab territory, these governments would automatically become parties to the war. Therefore, Arab governments, especially those of the Gulf Cooperation Council and Egypt, should do more than just announce their opposition to military action or even to harsher sanctions. They must take definitive measures to ensure that they are not embroiled in a war, directly or indirectly. At the same time, there is nothing to compel the Arabs to remain idle in the face of Iranian actions that threaten their interests, especially Tehran's policies in Iraq and meddling in the internal affairs of some Arab countries. In this regard, the Arabs will be better poised to safeguard their interests if they unified their position towards Iran and demonstrated their persuasiveness in direct negotiations with Tehran aimed at establishing common ground.

Yet the Arabs will find it difficult to agree on how to manage both the conflict with Israel and the relationship with Iran until all members of the Arab League become legally and politically accountable to the same. This brings us to the third challenge, which is to fundamentally alter the organisational structure of this body, a process that should take place on three levels. In view of the well- established inefficacy of the League's dispute settlement mechanisms, especially in times of crisis, these need to be totally overhauled. The new instruments would consist of a diplomatic mechanism in the form of a panel of wise men (the previous, serving and next summit chairs), a judicial dispute settlement mechanism -- a kind of Arab Court of Justice -- empowered to arbitrate disputes and whose rulings would be legally binding, and an Arab Security Council empowered to enforce sanctions on member states that violate their obligations under the Arab League Charter, and equipped with a standing peacekeeping force.

In addition, there must be new collective security mechanisms capable of deterring outside threats and responding to acts of aggression against member states. In this regard, it is important to acknowledge that the Joint Arab Defence Pact, signed in 1950, has long since passed its validity period. For one, it fails to take into account that some Arab countries have signed separate peace agreements with Israel. In addition, it is no longer commensurate to the new sources of threats arising from globalisation and the ways that these have impacted on the structure of the international order and international power relations. Lastly, mechanisms must be introduced to ensure real participation of Arab parliaments and civil society organisations in the Arab League decision-making process. Although a parliament and commissions have been created in the past 10 years, these have proven to be more in the nature of a superficial makeover, as though inspired by a desire to blindly imitate the outward manifestations of the European experience without a grasp of the substance behind them.

Rising to challenges of the magnitude of those outlined above requires an Arab order with an appropriate level of awareness and resolve. As such a condition remains in the realm of pure hypothesis, we can expect the forthcoming summit in Tripoli to be another clone of its predecessors, neither adding anything new to the last one or contributing to make the next one better.

* The writer is professor of political science at Cairo University.

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