Saturday,18 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1204, (3-9 July 2014)
Saturday,18 August, 2018
Issue 1204, (3-9 July 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Where’s the Arab League?

The stakes of the current regional crisis are too great to ignore. Collective Arab resolve is needed, and needed now, writes Abdel-Moneim Said

Al-Ahram Weekly

About a year ago, an article of mine appeared in Al-Ahram Weekly discussing the possibilities of shifting borders and the rise of new nations in the region as the consequence of the uprisings that sometimes are collectively referred to as the “Arab Spring”. Much has changed in the intervening year, lending even greater weight to this idea. At this time last year, ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) had not yet penetrated Iraq to such an extent giving the Kurds the opportunity to seize Kirkuk and the areas that were under dispute between the central government in Baghdad and the Kurdish government in the north. General Khalifa Haftar’s drive had not yet come into existence in Libya. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood and its radical offshoots were still in power, engaged in their first attempt to push the country in the opposite direction, and they believed they were poised to seize control over the entire Middle East. So much has changed since then. The talk about “new maps” has become more prevalent than ever. In fact, it was not surprising that ISIS, as it is moving in the belt of Sunni areas, should reach the gates of Baghdad, pause and then swoop westward to erase the borders between Jordan and Syria.

 In spite of the foregoing, the Arab League has ground to a halt. When the Arab League does this, it means that its members have not yet made up their minds on how to react to new realities.

In general, in history, regional organisations or international alliances and systems handle cases of disintegration and union — the two processes are connected — in one of two ways. The first is to acknowledge the status quo, to resolve that to alter it would usher in permanent anarchy and hostilities, and to take action against all parties that might move to alter the established or existing status quo. An example of this approach is the Peace of Westphalia of 1648 in accordance with which the European nations of the time agreed on the principle of non-intervention in support of a minority in another country by nations with a majority of the same identity as that minority. Other examples are to be found in the Helsinki agreement of 1974, in which NATO and Warsaw Pact countries agreed to keep European borders as they were at the end of World War II, and in that provision of the charter of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) that states that the borders between African states should remain as they stood on the eve of independence at the end of the colonialist era.

The second approach is to regulate the processes of disintegration so as to render them as peaceful as possible and, perhaps, to facilitate unification processes different from the previously existing unity. For example, the purpose of the Congress of Vienna (which brought together Britain, Austria, Prussia, Russia and, eventually, France following the upheavals from the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars) during its meetings from 1815 to 1914 was to readjust the balances of power in Europe in order to prevent the outbreak of new wars. In the interest of securing a long-term peace in Europe, the statesmen in that congress initially intervened to keep Belgium within the Kingdom of the Netherlands and then to facilitate its independence. Norway vacillated between remaining under the Danish or Swedish thrones, and independence, while Finland remained united with Russia for nearly a century. In spite of the charter of the OAU (which would eventually change its name to the Africa Union), the international body tried to regulate the processes of Eritrea’s secession from Ethiopia and, eventually, South Sudan’s independence from the larger Sudanese entity. In Europe, the Helsinki agreement collapsed following the end of the Cold War, bringing the reunification of Germany, the breakup of Yugoslavia into six states, and the secession of the Czech Republic from Czechoslovakia. Amazingly, after all those secessionist drives, all those secessions rushed to reunify within the framework of the EU.

What is happening in our region has had precedents in other parts of the world. But what appears to be on hold is a decision regarding what approach to take. The choice is difficult. The process of deciding is gruelling, especially since the storm that began to sweep the Middle East and the Arab region in 2011 is still raging. The porousness of borders and the fluctuations in alliances that was generated by that storm remain highly fluid, which means that almost anything is possible. The problem with making choices — or not — is that history wakes up with a vengeance. Although the spectre of what is unfolding now had long been there, we either ignored it or pretended it did not exist to begin with. Or, if we did admit to its existence; that it had to be a foreign-colonialist-Zionist fabrication. But the problem of the Kurds is nothing new. Their war with the rest of Iraq in the 1970s and again in the 1990s followed by the settlements that were reached following the fall of Saddam Hussein all took place beneath our noses. Yet, we never paused to consider the approaching possibility of the emergence of an independent Kurdish state. The division between the Sunnis and Shias is long and deep in Arab and Islamic history. For centuries it has generated a barrier between religious majority and minority, and in spite of efforts to overcome it by means of the nation state, the duties and obligations of which — imposed on its demographic components — were not always welcome.

The problem now is how to handle a current situation that is moving very rapidly and threatening or triggering much worse to come. So far, no Arab country of weight has advanced a proposal and no group of Arab countries has converged around a particular approach or idea. This void seems to require some action on the part of the Arab League if not to formulate an approach then, perhaps, to generate an environment conducive to discussing one. We have some instances in which the Arab League took such action. For example, when the revolution erupted in Libya and threatened to become a train of massacres, the Arab League took the decision to support international efforts and Arab countries interventions in the battles until the Gaddafi regime fell. Unfortunately, there was no follow-through, which could have prevented Libya from degenerating from revolution to a state of instability on the threshold of civil war. Similarly, an Arab League resolution gave rise to the decision on the part of a number of Arab states to support the moderate political forces in Syria. But the situation has become far more complex. Perhaps it will require another attempt that brings to bear a broader strategic horizon that takes into account the shifts in the balance of power, and the power vacuum, that has arisen in countries of the region due to uprisings that need not be discussed here. Perhaps the Arab League is the appropriate framework for that task at this juncture.

The Arab League has convened many “emergency” Arab summits over the years in order to organise a response to wars and crises. Sometimes they succeeded in halting the bloodshed. At other times they failed. This time, we cannot afford the luxury of failure because there will not be many other chances. Change is happening too quickly. Different forces and groups are exploiting the gaps and racing, using armed force, to achieve their ends in the acquisition of land, oil, power or a bigger piece of these.

After the Sykes-Picot Agreement was struck, to partition the Arab Levant, we cried for the next hundred years. But there was somebody to blame. Who are we going to blame today?

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