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Hichem Karoui: Arab League… still in the rear?
October 29, 2011
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

The Arab world is apparently changing too quickly for the Arab League, unable to help Syria and Yemen. Let us be honest and acknowledge that this old institution has never been much of a vanguard leader, although we are told that its mission was to promote concord and facilitate agreement between its member-states. Actually it did; but always in expressing the realities of the prevailing mood among the most influential governments, not the popular mood.

During the fifties and a part of the sixties in the last century, the prevailing mood was Panarabism: Nasser was the most influential Arab leader; and neither the Saudi kingdom eastward, nor Bourguiba’s Tunisia westward, could change this fact. Both were resentful of Nasser’s growing power, and persuaded that he represented a threat to their own authority.

Yet, the Arab League was then almost acquired by the Egyptian views of the struggle opposing the Arabs to Israel. The statements of the Arab summits in that period show clearly how the diplomatic discourse of the League was shaped in the Nasserite mould, although the Arab leaders opposing Nasser continued to oppose him, showing through their Western alliances and other discernible behavioural distinctions where they stood.

The 1967’s war broke the spell. While revealing to the Arabs their impotence and the hollowness of a political discourse that relies on line shooting instead of facts, it allowed the conservatives aligned behind Saudi Arabia to point out to the defects of the system settled by Nasser and the Pan-Arabists.

The political trends that were hampered in their self-deployment by the Nasserite period, self-centred around the Western notion of nation-state, started emerging from the limbo. Represented in Lebanon by the Phalanges, in Tunisia by Bourguiba’s fanatics, in Algeria by Boumedienism, in Egypt by an old school going back to Lotfi Sayyid and Salama Moussa, which will find a way to the top through M. Anwar Al Sadat... etc…. These trends will grow slowly as a timid response to the biggest defeat in contemporary Arab history.

In the seventies, after Nasser passed away, they emerged with a new discourse merging a new brand of state-capitalism with the same autocratic rule that distinguished the previous period. The war of 1973 followed by the Arab oil embargo gave them “official credentials.” From that moment onward, taking the reverse positions of the Nasserite period did not entail guilt or shame. Quite the contrary.

In Tunisia, Bourguiba even made a point of honour at reminding the Arabs of his famous discourse of 1965 in Jericho, when he urged the Palestinians to accept what the UN has offered them in the 1947’s partition plan, and received a shower of eggs and tomatoes.

Actually, he did not believe that they could win if they continued to rely on the “Arabs”: i.e. Nasser! He was convinced that Palestine would never be free if it was not represented by a strong nationalist movement, completely independent and devoted to the Palestinian “nation.” At the time, even Yasser Arafat himself could not hold such a discourse that would challenge the belief of the Panarabists: Palestine was the cause of all the Arabs.

In Algeria, Boumediene was triumphant with his Third-World pseudo-socialist discourse, self-centred around the great Algerian nation. In Lebanon, the Phalanges movement was constructing its ideology on the idea that Lebanon was something “special” and that it was more connected to the Phoenicians (i.e. maybe because they were pagans) than to the Arabs (i.e. Muslims).

It was inevitable that this movement would clash with the Palestinians who were in Lebanon also because their problem was acknowledged as the “Arab cause.” In Egypt, Sadat was looking for a way to build his own leadership, and thanks to his army’s performance in war, he soon felt enough strong to challenge his predecessor, still present in the Egyptian mind. In that decade, Egypt slipped from the influence of Pan-Arabism to the old pseudo-liberal ideology, remindful of the ancient grandeur of this country.

Meanwhile, in other parts of the Arab world, the nation-state ideology was getting more importance, even without having any substantial meaning in the depth of our societies. Whereas the Baath party gained power in Syria and Iraq, it failed to show any difference distinguishing the Baathist rulers (supposed to be ideologically and politically more concerned about the Arab common interests) from the leaders of the self-centred “nation-states.” The struggle for power was and remained for years to become just that: a struggle for power, with its procession of conspiracies, coups, counter-coups, and its innumerable victims, assassinated or convicted to heavy sentences, jailed or hanged after a parody of judgement.

In Saudi Arabia and the then new countries in the region, the state was gaining ground with an ideology focused on the fulfilment of a religion-based identity. The oil boom and the wealth it accumulated in a short period made these states feel even more sensible to their own weaknesses as they were to that of their region and the entire Arab system. They made choices, which seemed challenging the old and waning left-wing/Pan-Arabist alliance. They were aware that they depended on the West for their trade, as the West depended on them for its energy.

The alliance with the West was therefore dictated by the necessities and the conditions of life in the modern time. No ideology would be strong enough to challenge the realities of economy, finances and trade. These choices were often misunderstood or misinterpreted. Anyway, the “ambiguities” of the seventies were also expressed through the statements of the Arab League, which has moved from Cairo to Tunis. Bourguiba was triumphant. However, does that mean that the Arabs have finally adopted the “realpolitik” view he had advocated?

The eighties of the last century showed the growing influence of Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region, which particularly appeared in the offers of peace (Fahd plan). Thus, the Arab League has followed up the prevailing mood. It will continue to follow through the nineties, which turned out to be the decade of global military alliances. The Arabs were divided by Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. The Arab League was at its lowest moments, ever.

Yet, the first decade of this century showed them even more divided and the Arab League powerless, with the US invasion of Iraq. The League was unable to help or control what happened in Iraq. The Iraqis felt isolated and resented the League, and we know what the price of the Arab inertia was.

Today, with the liberation of Libya, thanks to an Arab-Nato alliance, are we witnessing the triumph of the system that made possible the liberation of Kuwait? So, what about Yemen? What about Syria?

The author an expert in US-Middle East relations at the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies (Doha Institute).

 

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