Sunday,22 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1346, (25 - 31 May 2017)
Sunday,22 July, 2018
Issue 1346, (25 - 31 May 2017)

Ahram Weekly


Recently, the Arab League secretary-general sought to remind us of Arab strengths. It was a surprising but accurate message, writes Mohamed Salmawy

I can still hear the words of Ambassador Ahmed Abul-Gheit, secretary-general of the Arab League, which were like a shout to snap this Arab entity out of its lethargy and remind it of its strong points which we had forgotten or feigned to forget. We were taking part in the Arab Media Forum in Dubai. The opening session was with the Arab League secretary-general who spent nearly an hour fielding various questions from participants. The questions were old and expected, all going through the familiar routine of accusing the league of being weak and ineffective and asking what the point was of keeping it alive at a time when the Arabs had no presence to speak of in the international arena. Abul-Gheit’s answers took us by surprise. They combined to present a vision that was totally the antithesis to the prevailing defeatist outlook. He decided to remind us of our strengths, in contrast to the usual moaning and groaning over our current state. He reminded us, for example, that Arab GDP now stood at $3 trillion a year which, he said, should be regarded as not an insignificant source of strength. Views may differ over how to use the returns from this money, but regardless of our differences we need to count it as a strong point that we should bear in mind.

At the cultural level, Ambassador Abul-Gheit underscored the fact that Arab culture is still a single, indivisible whole strengthened by our common Arabic linguistic bond. He related that when he recently attended a conference at the EU he saw 11 cabins for simultaneous translators whose job it was to translate the proceedings into Europe’s many languages. Arab League conferences do not need anything of this sort. Of course, language is not just a tool for communication. It is also a repository of shared culture and history. Speaking Arabic is a daily manifestation of a shared identity that was shaped over the centuries and that, today, is vulnerable to some unprecedented threats. Most salient among these are the extremist sectarian movements that seek to dismantle society by striking at national identity and fuelling sectarian outlooks that are founded on the erroneous notion that one religion excludes the existence of others. Such an outlook, he said, is antithetical to the ideals and principles that formed the underpinnings of Arab civilisation at the apogee of the Islamic empire. He added that if we lose our language, we lose our culture, civilisation and, indeed, our identity. Therefore, the politician who underscores the importance of language expresses a correct and accurate grasp of the strengths that the Arab world possesses.

After Abul-Gheit finished enumerating the Arabs’ various strengths, he said that the Arabs could defeat the threats they face, the most important of which are drives to destroy the nation state and break them up into a clutch of petty states based on sectarian and ethnic affiliations.

At first glance one might have thought that this was a speech out of a long lost era because who in the world speaks of the Arabs’ power and their ability to contend with challenges these days? Yet, all his remarks were supported by facts and figures, all of which drove home how ignorant we were of our own sources of strength.

A few days ago, Abul-Gheit broached an extremely important subject. Indeed, it is the “mother of all subjects” these days: Terrorism, which emerged as one of the major weapons for realising the goal of fragmenting Arab countries and demolishing the components of the Arab nation state. During the seventh regional conference in Beirut organised by the Lebanese army’s Strategic Research and Studies Centre, Abul-Gheit spoke of the need to intensify coordination and cooperation between Arab armies in the fight against terrorism, extremist organisations and their militias that have proliferated in the Arab region. He also stressed the importance of making the necessary changes in military training programmes, armaments and methods of conducting operations with an eye to a heavier focus on special operations. At the same time, he called for measures to enhance the efficacy of intelligence gathering and analysis agencies. “Intelligence is the cornerstone in the war against terrorism,” he said.

Then he addressed the role of the Arab League. “If the Joint Arab Force remains an aim that has yet to be translated into reality, then at the very least there must be greater military coordination between Arab nations at the bilateral level,” he said. Can this be arranged under the auspices of the Arab League? Such coordination could be the means to strengthening the capacities of Arab armies in the current battle. It could contribute to enhancing their performance in special operations by holding joint manoeuvres and exercises, promoting better practices and optimising the benefits from the lessons learned from the experiences of Arab countries that have encountered the same threats.

The secretary-general stressed: “Armed forces in our contemporary world are dealing with new types of threats that require special preparation. The main arena of the war being waged by terrorist groups is the mind.” He added: “Terrorists know very well that they can only lose in any direct confrontation with standing armies. Therefore, they are waging a protracted war of attrition against society as a whole.”

In so saying, Abul-Gheit brought us back to the question of identity and, particularly, that crucial dimension of our cultural heritage which is another major source of our strength. The war against society is, effectively, a war against its culture, its civilisation and its history. When that war crosses beyond the boundaries of ideological proselytising to guns, bombs and explosives and even, as we see in some neighbouring countries, to the use of armies, tanks and aircraft, then it is time to bring in Arab armies. It is on the basis of this comprehensive perspective that the secretary-general has urged Arab countries to coordinate and cooperate more closely in order to improve their efficacy against that common peril.

It is a vision that deserves our respect because it rests on the Arabs’ already existing strong points. At the same time, it is a modern vision that derives from an accurate reading of current realities and an acute awareness of the facts of our age. But, above all, it is a practical call that identifies certain guidelines that the Arabs should follow in order to return to the status they merit.

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