Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1149, 23 - 29 May 2013
Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Issue 1149, 23 - 29 May 2013

Ahram Weekly

Little agreement found in Doha

Arabs express hopes for the future of the Arab Spring while the West exaggerates the rise of radical currents, fearing a spill over of conflicts, writes Ahmed Eleiba from the Doha Forum

Al-Ahram Weekly

Arabs and Europeans were coming from opposite political perspectives and orientations on the Syrian issue and the impact of the Arab Spring were two topics that dominated discussions at the Doha Forum 2013, entitled “Enriching the Middle East’s Economic Future.” Views spanned a broad spectrum, including ambitious visions for the future of Arab countries and how close their citizens are to becoming part of the political equation, despite obstacles.

This was mostly the content of keynote speeches by Arabs, especially Qatar, the host of the forum. At the other end of the spectrum was caution by Western politicians about the same future, including from former British prime minister and Labour Party leader Gordon Brown and former French Prime Minister Francois Fillon, who was circumspect, and perhaps even pessimistic, about this future when looking at growing violence by radical Islamist forces in some countries.

Meanwhile, most Arab participants urged for a resolution for the Syrian crisis quickly, but were countered by caution from the West about the flow of arms to both sides in Syria and how this would impact the political future there. Participants could not agree on a clear vision about the future of Syria, and expectations were divided over the outcome of the Geneva2 conference scheduled at the end of this month.

There are reports about problems in organising and preparing for the conference, between Europeans who promote the importance of the conference in ending the deepening crisis, and the Arab perspective that expects little from a conference that only prolongs the conflict.

In his opening speech, Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani said there is a sense of sorrow and despair as the Syrian revolution enters its third year without clear prospects that the bloody conflict will end. It has left in its wake tens of thousands of innocent victims and millions of displaced and refugees, and widespread physical destruction because the Syrian regime persists in its military crackdown.

The emir criticised international players for not taking action to address the deplorable situation and horrific tragedy and growing humanitarian disaster in Syria. He added: “they want to decide who will defend the Syrian people using all excuses. It is unfortunate that this is happening after all international and Arab initiatives failed to convince the Syrian regime to listen to reason.”

For his part, Fillon criticised Bashar Al-Assad’s regime because the crisis has spilled over into neighbouring Lebanon, which is closely connected to Paris. But he also condemned funding arms for either side in the conflict as it would gravely impact the Syrian crisis in the end, and perhaps even prolong it. “It destabilises the entire region,” Fillon argued. “Weapons are pouring into Syria from everywhere, and Al-Assad wants to export the crisis across his borders.”

Fillon has high expectations for Geneva 2, which he described as a last chance to end fighting in Syria. He also discussed rising extremism that accompanied the Arab Spring in many affected countries, including Libya and Egypt. Fillon reflected on the Franco-German experience of rebuilding after World War II.

Wolfgang Ischinger, chairman of the Munich Security Conference, reiterated the same in his address. Ischinger warned against deteriorating conditions in Syria, asserting that if it continues it would worsen and the state could collapse altogether. There is also the possibility of the use of weapons of mass destruction and increased risks of terrorism. He too talked about Geneva 2.

Fillon did not view the Arab Spring — which Arab comments and speeches focussed on — as a critical point of change in the Middle East, except from the perspective of growing religious fanaticism.

Brown, meanwhile, argued for raising development rates and cited economic development figures in Arab Spring countries that once stood between 5-10 per cent but have dipped to between 2.0-3.6 per cent. This requires an effective economic renaissance to meet domestic challenges, and he suggested opening a development bank of the Middle East and North Africa modelled after the Islamic Development Bank to be funded by Gulf oil-rich states.

Interesting was how many participants and European observers compared conditions in states in the region and those where the Arab Spring took place, which was not reassuring for many as they favoured the latter. This was the polar opposite of the ideal picture Tunisian Prime Minister Ali Laarayedh attempted to paint in the first part of his protracted speech at the forum on his forward-looking vision for conditions in post-revolution Tunisia.

“The second republic in Tunisia that we want [to create] is humane, civil, democratic, plural, protects rights and freedoms,” Laarayedh declared. “Islam is its religion, Arabic is its language, and a republic is the system of government. It is a state of justice, equality and impartial administration.”

He also talked about the challenges facing Tunisia, noting the former regime’s legacy of tyranny, imbalance in power, and unfair distribution of wealth. Challenges continue despite raising the growth rate by 3.6 per cent. These are modest steps alongside policies for democratic transformation and effective participation.

Attending the conference, Mohamed Honeid, professor of international relations at the Sorbonne in Paris, who is of Tunisian origin, told Al-Ahram Weekly that France is counting on the Tunisian experiment of democratic transformation to fail. Honeid explained the Tunisian revolution upset France’s interests that were historically allied — politically, economically and militarily — with Bin Ali’s regime that was overthrown by the revolution. It also overturns France’s cultural and linguistic influence under current alliances.

Some observers believe the situation between the regime and opposition in Tunisia is moving towards bridging differences after the assassination of leading leftist opposition figure Shukri Beleid. This is unlike what is occurring in Egypt, where conditions are more strained because of tensions between those in power and the opposition.

Alain Gresh, chief editor of Le Monde diplomatique, who has visited Tunis and Cairo, told the Weekly he has concluded the transformation in Tunisia will be faster than in Egypt, because the current Tunisian leadership, Al-Nahda Party, is more open. Gresh arrived at this conclusion after an extensive interview with Al-Nahda Party President Rached Al-Ghannouchi. But the opposite was true in Egypt after talking with Mahmoud Hussein, secretary-general of the Freedom and Justice Party. Hussein made it very clear there would be no dialogue with the opposition, represented by the National Salvation Front, before parliamentary elections.

Honeid partially agrees with Gresh that Tunisia is taking the initiative and Egypt is following a tried and failed path, adding that sometimes they exchange roles in this regard. While Beleid’s assassination aimed to undermine dialogue, instead it triggered an opposite reaction, said Honeid.

“Fillon and others exaggerate the fear of Salafis and extremism in Arab Spring countries,” he said. “Under the previous regime, the presence of an objective and balanced Islamic culture was not allowed, in order to maintain a European-leaning identity, especially French. This is why today there are political Islamist groups, most of whom do not adopt the moderate doctrine of such groups as Al-Zaytouna.”

Honeid added that an objective national dialogue based on the revolution’s values and criteria will shape the scene in the future into one of stability and ballot results, instead of this opportunity being lost in the labyrinth of civil strife.

Criticism of Western perspectives and future scenarios discussed at the Doha Forum not only came from Arab Spring countries, but Gulf countries, who noted that Western scenarios were too gloomy. “The West’s pragmatic policies indicate concern about what is happening and ignore the victims and the aftermath of the regime’s revenge tactics against its own people,” said Abdullah bin Hamad Al-Azba, a political analyst from Qatar and managing editor of the Qatari Al-Arab, who attended the conference.

“They are worried about destructive ideologies in Syria that could even reach Tel Aviv. The Iranian and Russian roles through funds and arms are very clearly supporting the Syrian regime, which has lost legitimacy. Therefore, the other side [Arabs supporting the opposition, including Qatar] has the right to arm the opposition,” Al-Azba told the Weekly. “This is something set by international law under the UN, based on the right to self-defence. How can Iran’s Revolutionary Guard go to Syria and fight while those supporting the opposition just sit there and watch?”

He added concerns about spill over reaching Tel Aviv came despite the well-known position of Al-Assad’s regime, which has not lifted a finger in response to Israel’s attacks deep into Syria.

Regarding Geneva 2, Al-Azba believes Qatar supports both the political track, which would never allow Al-Assad to stay in power, as well as the track of supporting the opposition. He said continuous fighting without resolution until today is the result of allowing one side, Al-Assad, to be armed with Russian S-300 missile systems and Iranian weapons. Meanwhile, there is uncertainty about where the weapons in the hands of the opposition would eventually end up — perhaps with forces described as “terrorist” or extremist.

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