While the location of Tehran may have added a historic dimension to this year's NAM summit, most everything else appeared as business as usual, writes Abdel-Moneim Said
The world of international diplomacy has a way of preserving international organisations and conventions even when there is no longer any need for them. As a result, these organisations or conventions have an amazing ability to survive long after the historical circumstances that gave rise to them have ended and after the founding nations, themselves, have changed and, worse, when the newcomers are clueless as regards the original motives and ideas that led to their creation. The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) is a prime instance of one of those auto-driven organisations whose members are compelled to meet, not in order to achieve some objective but simply for the sake of meeting. Not that the speechwriters for the NAM president lack for "essential" justifications for convening a summit that brings together the heads of member states and that, in and of itself, is an "accomplishment". After all, who can predict the fruits that will develop when adversaries meet and rub shoulders, or when one president sits next to another at a banquet table? Undoubtedly, this is why it is very rare that anyone bothers to consider what happens between one summit and the next, for nothing will prevent NAM members from repeating the same exercise as predictably as ever.
To my generation, which grew up under the generation of Third World leaders of the 1950s and 1960s, the creation of NAM was a watershed in the history of the national liberation struggle. Newly independent states were taking up UN seats in rapid succession at a time when the Cold War was spiralling and its chief antagonists were exerting enormous pressures on the still tender shoots of the emergent nations. Whether for economic or strategic reasons, some of these nations immediately chose to side with either the socialist or capitalist camp. Regardless of which side they chose, the sense of dependency put them under constant moral and psychological strain. What was the point of all those sacrifices that were made for the sake of independence if these former colonies were only to end up in an orbit in which they would still have no say in their own fate? It was this very dilemma that gave rise to the notion of what was first referred to as "positive neutrality". A product of the Bandung conference of 1955, the concept held that it was not enough for newly independent nations to be passively neutral, like Switzerland. They needed to act constructively in order to alleviate the international tensions generated by the Cold War, especially given that the risks of the nuclear game would not be borne by the opposing camps alone.
The concept was originally championed by Nehru, Nasser and Tito, which is to say India, Egypt and Yugoslavia. Subsequently, many other countries that fell in the orbit of the soviet or capitalist camp came to support it. However, the Non-Aligned Movement represented a third option, a way for many national leaders to "whitewash" dependency. Thus, NAM broadened to include most of the countries of the Third World. They climbed on board and stayed aboard even after the celebrated leaderships that led them to independence had passed away or were overthrown by coups or simply crumbled, and even after the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union and its camp collapsed. As for the original founders, Yugoslavia disintegrated into several countries, India's drive to become a great power brought it into the Western camp where markets and technological progress abound, and Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel and forged a strategic relationship with the US. More significantly, there arose some far more powerful and effective international organisations with some very specific goals, such as the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, which includes most industrialised nations, and the G8 whose members consist of those powers that control the lion's share of the global economy. Meanwhile, NAM continues as ever. It convenes its summits periodically and its member states take their turns in the presidential seat. At the time of the last summit, Egypt held the chair and hosted the convention in Cairo with Hosni Mubarak presiding. This year the summit took place in Tehran against a historic backdrop very different to anything that preceded it. There were heads of state and national representatives of lower rank, although the meeting went ahead regardless of the status of the attendees. The political context was certainly unlike that which characterised all previous summits, which had all the excitement of arriving at a party just as all the guests are leaving. The context this year is an international conflict in which Iran is a chief protagonist. Some may argue that an element of the old Cold War still exists because of the tensions between Russia and the US. However, Russia is not the USSR and there is a world of difference between the mortal animosity that characterised the old Cold War and the sharp differences of opinion and conflicting interests that are often overridden by many types of cooperation between Washington and Moscow today. As for the notion of a global bipolarity between the US and China, that remains in the metaphysical realm. So this leaves Iran as a party to a conflict that has elements of a cold war, in which the other side consists of the US and Israel, backed by the West in general, which is driving to break Tehran through boycotts, sanctions and other means of pressure. These elements are combined with the spectre of a "hot war" that both sides seem to be preparing for as though it were about to erupt tomorrow morning. In other words, Iran can hardly be described as non-aligned or even positively neutral and constructively seeking to promote noble goals. It is caught in a mill that none of the participants in the NAM summit knew how to deal with apart from appealing to Tehran to demonstrate that it intends its nuclear programme for peaceful purposes.
Against this tense backdrop Egypt made its first appearance in a new form. During the past few decades, Egypt generally regarded NAM as one of those heavy but unavoidable obligations it inherited but often felt duty-bound to observe in order to show its gratitude to countries that had stood by it in difficult times while simultaneously realising that the alliance could come in handy when something new cropped up with regard to the Palestinian cause or the application of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to Israel. But all this had little relevance on this occasion. What marked this occasion, for Egypt, was that this was the first NAM summit it attended following the Egyptian revolution and the subsequent democratic elections that brought to power a president who is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood movement. Egypt is still in the early phases of this change, but we can say that it is no longer the purely pragmatic Egypt that acted in accordance with the dictates of circumstance and the existing balances of power, as was the case under Mubarak, but rather an Egypt in which ideological motives are tempered by the force of the continuity of the Egyptian state and its foreign policy outlooks.
This new mixture has not yet settled, for which reason the force of continuity is what ultimately defined President Mursi's map of action on his way to the conference. There was no question of him not going, because his attendance was required by virtue of the diplomatic obligations that remain incumbent upon the state and its presidency, and because no one has the right to tell this state how to act with respect to a movement of which it was one of the chief founders. Above all, there were also Egyptian interests to pursue.
For Mursi, the summit amounted to a four-hour trip, of which 40 minutes were spent in a meeting with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Perhaps the visit was purely symbolic, but it carried some powerful messages. For one, it was impossible to keep Nasser out of the picture. As one of NAM's founding fathers, he remains an asset of the Egyptian state, however bitter the animosity had once been between this state and the Muslim Brotherhood. At the same time, the Syrian question, which loomed heavily over the meeting, served to demarcate some clear lines between the policy outlooks of Egypt and Iran, thereby driving home to people in the West and in the Gulf that the NAM summit was, indeed, a convocation of independent sovereign states, not a platform for Islamic revolutions. Finally, while all due respect was given to Shia Islam, Egypt remains a Sunni country and, therefore, still a member of a camp to which it belonged in the former era. Tehran may have been the setting, but ultimately the Egyptian state was engaged in the routine business of carrying out foreign policy in a conventional summit.