Al-Ahram Weekly Online   30 March - 5 April 2006
Issue No. 788
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Buried heads

Arab countries are apparently unwilling to tackle their problems head-on

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Zibari, Lahoud, the Egyptian delegation, Bashar and Qaddafi

In Khartoum for the annual convocation of their summit, Arabs appeared disinterested in taking a direct approach in treating their crucial and, in some cases, boiling hot problems. Instead, they have taken back roads towards concluding resolutions that will be accepted by the delegations of all 22 member states and which might reflect a sense of the much talked about but never achieved Arab solidarity.

The resolutions adopted by the Khartoum summit this week offer what some Arab diplomats qualify as decent frameworks for the collective Arab approach towards dealing with several pressing problems, including the situation in the Palestinian territories, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Sudan. What these resolutions fail to do, however, is define in clear black and white the exact nature of the problems that confront the Arab countries or, for that matter, their consequences on the Arab world as a whole. Moreover, the resolutions of the Arab summit -- which many observers agree have become a routine reflection of the stagnant Arab approach in handling their problems -- fall far short of offering concrete, not to mention daring, or even creative, solutions to the problems at hand.

In the words of Arab diplomats, most of these resolutions were drafted by the countries concerned, with a few amendments offered here and there during the preparatory meetings to the summit which opened in Khartoum on Tuesday and which will end Sunday afternoon when Arab foreign ministers conclude their meetings. The changes introduced to the original drafts, Arab diplomats agree, were only meant to reduce the level of commitment on the part of Arab states, especially at the financial and at times political and diplomatic levels.

"It's true that the Arab summit offered us around 50 per cent of the monthly financial aid we asked for," said Nasser Al-Qedwa, outgoing foreign minister of the Palestinian Authority. "The summit knew exactly what we wanted and it knows exactly the problems we are facing trying to garner enough money for our people and it made its decision based on its own assessments," Al-Qedwa added.

Against a backdrop of retreating foreign aid to the PA in the wake of the election of a predominantly Hamas legislative council and the upcoming composition of a Hamas government, Palestinians were hoping that their so-called "Arab brethren" would make good on the public statements they have been issuing that suggested Arab determination to reach out to the Palestinian people and make sure they are not collectively punished for exercising their right to vote in the legislative elections held in January in which they voted in Hamas.

At a meeting of the Arab League Economic and Social Council, held this week at the ministerial level in Khartoum, outgoing Palestinian Minister of Economy Mazen Sencorate said, "The Palestinian Authority budget desperately needs over $100 million a month."

Sencorate said declining revenues in his coffers have been dramatic, not only due to the decrease of foreign aid flows but also due to Israel's decision to freeze Palestinian financial dues. He stressed that the monthly $55 million earmarked by the Arab summit last year in Algeria to the Palestinians needs to be doubled. The summit thought otherwise. Al-Qedwa said that over the past 12 months the $55 million promised was never fully delivered. "But then again this is the decision of Arab capitals."

The consequences of the lack of funds on the daily lives of 3.5 million Palestinians living under occupation are not a secret to Arab countries. And if it were, it jumped out in the open during the foreign ministers' meeting that convened on Saturday and Sunday during which Al-Qedwa spoke of the suffering of his people. Arab officials who might have doubted the account of their Palestinian counterpart must have found plenty of evidence and even appeal during the many meetings they held with UN Secretary- General Coordinator for the Middle East Alvero De Soto and his EU counterpart Marc Otte, both of whom could be seen roaming the corridors of the Arab meetings to discuss the situation on the ground in the occupied Palestinian territories.

The same blind eye -- more or less -- was turned by the Arab summit when it came to the confused political set-up in Palestine where the Palestinian government and Palestinian leader are facing a serious communication gap, especially in relation to the fate of the peace process and the parametres for a settlement which were re-affirmed by the summit. "Our brothers of Hamas need to realise that Palestinian stands must be inspired by the precepts of international legitimacy, otherwise they will come under much more pressure," Al-Qedwa said. He declared it the responsibility of the Arab summit to get this message across to Hamas. The summit, Al-Qedwa said, must send Hamas a clear message that the Palestinians are part of the collective Arab stance which has accepted certain parametres for peace.

As Palestinian and Arab diplomats admit, the delay in the swearing-in of the Hamas government spared the summit from the embarrassment of having a Palestinian delegation led by Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader who is willing to walk the extra mile to communicate with the Israelis, and joined by new Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniya, the Hamas leader who wants to categorically reformulate the official Palestinian position regarding the peace process.

Hamas was in fact disappointed that it did not receive an invitation from the Arab summit. "We should give Hamas time to assume its responsibilities and examine the files," Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa said. "Since Israel does not seem to be willing to make any progress on peace talks or to give anything, then there is no point in imposing the question of what Hamas should or should not do to support the purposes of an elusive peace in the Middle East."

Arab diplomats confide the convocation was further burdened by the presence of Lebanese President Emile Lahoud and his political opponent Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Al-Senioura, who has publicly called on his head of state to resign in the face of the will of the Lebanese opposition. Sources close to the Lebanese delegation argue that Arab officials did not make the best use of the presence of the feuding senior officials.

Neither the inter-Lebanese row nor the Lebanese-Syrian conflict were included in the resolutions adopted by the Khartoum summit. The resolutions relevant to both countries echoed the traditional stands of support against Israeli occupation and US hegemony. With the elimination of the previously inevitable language on the "unity of tracks" of any negotiations conducted by either country with Israel, the resolutions illustrated the growing gap between Beirut and Damascus. The only element of realism in the resolutions related to this problematic part of the Arab world was inspired by the will of the international community that Syria had long ago succumbed to cooperate with the international investigation into the killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Al-Hariri.

Members of the Lebanese delegation in Khartoum seemed willing to share their disappointment over the reluctance of the Arab summit to address what they qualify as "enormous tension" which, if left to increase, would ultimately explode. Arab countries do not favour adopting clear language on the need for Syria to pursue the necessary legal steps to internationally declare Shebaa Lebanese territory and they do not wish to put sufficient pressure on Damascus to pursue the demarcation of borders between Syria and Lebanon. Nor do they want to accept that without addressing these matters it would be impossible for Lebanon and Syria to have good relations, Lebanese diplomats complained. Worse, they complained that the summit was not just putting its head in the sand on this matter but was accommodating Damascus's wish not to take any collective Arab position on the matter.

"The clouds looming over Lebanese-Syrian relations will clear up," Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Maalem said in the Sudanese capital. "However, it is not for the Khartoum summit to do this job. This is something for the Lebanese to decide on as they talk among each other." Al-Maalem's remarks were made a few days after his president, Bashar Al-Assad, had said there is nothing the collective Arab umbrella could do to address relations between Lebanon and Syria, and amid off-record complaints by Syrian diplomats over the appreciation of Arabs of the serious consequences of succumbing to the US-led international campaign to paint Damascus into a corner.

Complaints were also expressed by the Iraqi delegation. Iraqi Foreign Minister Houchiar Zebari made no effort to conceal his impatience with Arab countries. "The resolution adopted in Khartoum on Iraq is the minimum that Iraq would have expected from Arab countries in support of the Iraqi people at this particular juncture," Zebari said at a press conference in the Sudanese capital.

Arab leaders accommodated a draft resolution presented by the Iraqi delegation that calls on Iraqi political forces to promptly form their overdue "national unity government which could pave the way for the withdrawal of foreign forces from Iraq".

While ministers who drafted the final version of the resolution for adoption by Arab leaders are well aware of the complicated ethnic dynamics delaying the composition of the government, they failed to reflect any specific demands of any particular ethnic group in the resolution they adopted. The resolution confined itself to a request by the Arab League secretary-general to further pursue his efforts leading hopefully to an Iraqi national accord conference in June. The resolution also supports a Jordanian initiative to hold a conference for Iraqi religious leaders to meet in Amman next month to discuss ways of supporting Iraq's "unity, security and stability."

However, in terms of an operative paragraph, and as Zebari rightly noted, the resolution was not particularly inspiring. "We presented this draft because we knew this is what we could get at this point in time." The resolution limited itself to endorsing the decision of the Arab League to operate a limited diplomatic mission in Baghdad, for which no specific date has been set.

The diplomatic mission, some Arab diplomats say, should formulate a beginning to balance the increasing Iranian influence in Iraq that Arab capitals are becoming profoundly disturbed by. Arab countries were told they should not complain about the Iranian influence in Iraq and instead should act. "Arab countries have a responsibility towards Iraq. They should not confine this role to countering Iranian influence," Zebari stressed.

A similar sense of disappointment was expressed by several international officials involved with Iraq. "This is not what should be done with Iraq. Iraq is in a huge crisis. Arabs must have the courage to speak out and act promptly," commented one international official who added that if the Arab summit really wished to spare Iraq from "the inevitable fate of disintegration that it seems to be heading for", they should have called for an international conference to discuss the situation and to send international troops, including Muslim and Arab, to Iraq to replace US troops who are apparently desperately seeking a way out of Iraq. "But these countries do not want to face the situation. They are comfortable talking about supporting Iraq's stability without doing much about it," he said. "They do not even wish to cancel Iraq's debts."

Neither did Arab countries take a decision on writing off Sudan's debts to Arab countries, not even after the extensive briefing given by the Sudanese minister of finance about the strains imposed on his country's limited budget which have hampered all development plans the government needs to urgently initiate across Sudan.

The Arab summit failed to adopt a resolution on developments in Darfur that would sufficiently satisfy the Khartoum regime or for that matter send a positive message to the international community about the commitment of this Arab congregation to stand firm in the face of human rights violations committed in Darfur which according to some accounts have cost hundreds of thousands of lives. As such, the resolution failed to take a firm stand with or against the UN Security Council to send international troops to Darfur.

Every Arab official has spoken in favour of encouraging a fast-track negotiating process in Abuja between the Sudanese government and the Darfur rebels to allow for a peace settlement. Once peace is made, senior Arab officials insist, the Sudanese government could then agree on accepting the presence of international forces as peacekeepers similar to those deployed in the south of Sudan following the peace deal reached between the Khartoum regime and its militant opposition.

"One cannot say that these resolutions live up to the huge, and actually threatening, challenges the Arab world is facing now," commented a senior Arab diplomat. "But this is how far Arab countries are willing to go in confronting their problems."

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