After the Invasion of Iraq:What Future Awaits the Arab Order and the League of Arab States?

In Salon Ibn Rushd by CIHRS

Mohammed El Sayed Said: The Arab order is “bankrupt” and lost the reason for its existence a long time ago.
Ossama Saraya: There should be a new order observing regional and international situations and is conscious of the contradictions of its members.
Jamal Abdul Gawad: There is no interest in the persistence of the League of Arab States except the cultural league.

What kind of future awaits the Arab order, especially that its components seemed quite impotent and incapable of playing any role that would intercept the American-British invasion of Iraq, and the territories of some of its members have become the base of action for the invading forces, and even for the management of their operations? Would this order and its Arab League finally collapse as a result of this invasion?

These and many other questions were raised by the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) during Ibn Roshd Salon on “The Future of the Arab Regional Order”, held on April 1st, and moderated by Mr. Bahey El Din Hassan.

Mr. Bahey El Din Hassan began the discussion by indicating that doubts are growing over any future at all for either the Arab regional order or the League, even prior to the invasion of Iraq, as a result of several former crises that unmasked Arab impotence quite flagrantly. He also pointed out that despite its explicit rejection of the war on Iraq, the Sharm El Sheikh Summit did not practically join the anti-war camp, nor did it declare its support of Iraq.

He also asserted that the Arab order is facing several possibilities, the first of which being the persistence of the system as it currently is with some influence stricken by what happened in Iraq. The second possibility is the merger with the Middle Eastern project suggested since the Madrid meetings in 1996, based on the Barcelona Declaration. The third possibility is the fusion with the Euro-Mediterranean framework, and the fourth possibility is the genesis of a new regional framework under the nomenclature of “The Middle East and North Africa” encompassing Iran, Turkey and Israel alongside Arab States. The last possibility is to reach a genuine and radical reform with the contribution of civil society institutions that would revive the current order and the Arab League, seeking guidance in the structure of the European Union.

On his part, Dr. Mohammed El Sayed Said, Assistant Director of AlAhram Center for Political and Strategic Studies indicated that the Arab order lost its own existence a long time ago and that it persisted because of some kind of necessity for joint Arab action, even though its symbolic structure, represented in the League of Arab States, lost its capacity to strike the roots of unity and solidarity a long time ago and failed to transform the Arab situation from the current defeat into a better and more superior situation.

Said expressed his belief that there are no objective foundations for the current political makeup of the Arab order that point out to the possibility of a radical change of the Arab League system. On the other hand, there are no sufficient propelling forces to establish a new Arab order.

He argued that without an urgent and powerful attitude of Arab civil and political societies, it would not be possible to overcome the deficiencies of the current political order, indicating that there is a strong relationship between the current political order and the American war against Iraq, since the Arab order is the victim of this war as well as a strong reason for its outbreak. The Arab order, he maintained, did not send a clear-cut message to the American Administration stressing that it stood against the Arabs. Thus, it emphasized that the list of states targeted by the American government includes a number of other Arab states not only in terms of modification of their educational and cultural structures, but also by using all kinds of pressures, first and foremost military pressure, against those states. He gave evidence to his argument from the American threats to Syria.

Said also asserted that the incoherence and contradiction that pervade the existing Arab order enabled the American extreme right-wing to pull part of the American public opinion to pass the war project. Said did not rule out the that some Arab forces have been implicated in strengthening the American Administration’s pressures in favor of war, alongside other forces that facilitated this aggression.

In the same context, Said emphasized that the current structure of the Arab order and its institutions lost any purpose for its existence, indicating that the purpose of the League of Arab States is to defend the independence of its member states.

He added that the Arab order not only failed to protect the independence of its members, but also could not raise genuine and realistic ideas for reforming the current situation.

He also maintained that the political “insolvency” was quite clear in the Iraqi issue, pointing out that, following World War II, European states restored states that had initiated the aggression, such as Germany and did not banish them, while Iraq, after the Second Gulf War was treated quite irrationally by the Arab order. The entire file was entirely left with Washington.

Said considered that Arab political insolvency is also a manifestation of the failure of the ruling coalitions in most of the Arab countries both at the social and political levels.

Mohammed El Sayed Said emphasized the need for a powerful Arab order. He called in this context for a coalition at the non-official level between civil society institutions, political parties and Arab intellectuals, to reach a substitute for the League of Arab States and raise a substitute democratic project to rescue Arab action from its current impasse and rally for the defense of any Arab state that is subject for any aggression and invasion. He stressed that the League is needed not on cultural grounds, but also for defensive, economic and political reasons. He indicated that the list of American targets has already launched a severe and violent verbal attack on Syria, and expectations that a blow would be directed against the Labor Party and Lebanon, twisting Saudi Arabia’s arm as well as the harsh attitude exhibited by the ruling right-wing against Egypt are manifestations of this attitude.

Ossama Saraya, Editor-in-Chief of Al Ahram Al Arabi magazine began his presentation by emphasizing that the past and current crises that the Arab order has passed through do not provide any prospects for creating a new Arab order. He argued that there is no fundamental structure for an Arab economic or political order, and considered that some major issues such as the Palestinian issue and the 1967 war have been dealt with through a partial order within the Arab order itself and not through the entire Arab order.

Mr. Saraya indicated that Arab cohesion is almost entirely shattered, and that economic and political competition among Arab countries contributed to the disintegration of the Arab order, which became an object for mockery in the Second Gulf War.

Saraya criticized what he described as blaming others –especially America and Israel- for the collapse of the Arab situation. However, he did not deny their responsibility for the debacle.

He also criticized the attempt by some to create a new Arab order to confront America, Europe and Israel. He argued that such an order would be quite limited and deficient. He put down several terms for any new Arab order, and mentioned firstly that it should not be purely governmental, but should rather encompass Arab nations and civil society. Secondly, this order should take into consideration that it exists within a universal framework and not in a void. Hence, it should observe the regional and international situations as well as the fact that the Middle East has different partners and clusters such as Turkey and Israel.

Finally, this new order should take into consideration the contradictions between its members and should not seek general slogans and judgments so that it would not lose its credibility.

Saraya considered that any new Arab order should take off from the economic development of Egypt, which should also have a political system that would serve as a model for other Arab states. He said that Egypt is experiencing some openness but did not reach the required level.

He also pointed out that the persistence of the current Arab situation deprived most of the elite from practicing their activities within Arab societies and led to their stagnation, which actually fed conflicts within the Arab world. He warned that the current crisis –that of the war in Iraq- could lead to the collapse of political cohesion of the League of Arab States. He argued that this structure, though fragile and extremely weak, should be maintained because its collapse as a result of aggression on Iraq would mean the failure to establish a new order.

Saraya mentioned that the war on Iraq was the biggest and most dangerous “earthquake” that shacked the Arab order. Its repercussions are still ambiguous and largely undefined. His own perception is that it will alter the Arab situation quite largely and this change would manipulate Arab governments from within. He warned that unless governments responded to this change, they risk to be toppled, not because of external influences, but also as a result of waves of change from within. The Arab public opinion, which was quite prominent lately, has a great impact, despite the absence of any forces organizing it.

Dr. Jamal Abdul Gawad, Head of the International Relations Unit at Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies indicated that expectations that the League of Arab States and the Arab order would have a powerful standpoint regarding the crisis in Iraq and the surprisingly weak level of performance of both the League and the Arab Order was quite shocking and betrays –according to him- a sense of naivety.

He mentioned that when we speak about the Arab League and anything that is Arabic, there is a high degree of confusion of facts with ideological thought and wishful thinking. More often than not, wishful thinking prevails and people end up with shocks.

He asserted that the League of Arab States is not based on a genuine infrastructure, since there are no stable states, as is the case with the European Union. Some Arab countries deal with each other on the basis that they pose mutual threats to each other, as is the case between Morocco and Algeria, Syria and Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, etc. This kind of interaction took various forms and degrees, sometimes reaching the level of invasion, such as the case of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

He indicated that any discussion of a regional order should be preceded by the absence of such threats and the creation of congruent interests between members of this order. He pointed out to inconsistent interests and ideologies within the Arab regime apart from the fact that incoherent standpoints raised in dealing with major issues, such as the Arab-Israeli conflict, which range between radical and more open attitudes.

He argued that expectations of a better performance by the Arab order are quite exaggerated and unrealistic. He pointed out to the structural contradiction imposed on this order during a period where the pan-Arab and Arab nationalist agenda prevailed within a system based on the nation-state. Meanwhile, this agenda called for the fusion of this state within the Arab order. He maintained that parties of this order do not believe in this ideology, since it cannot be expected from an Arab State to admit and accept to fuse and merge with a greater entity. He gave an example to prove his point in the failure of the merger between Egypt and Syria.

Abdul Gawad considered that the Arab regional order is based on the marginalization of some states in favor of interests of countries surrounding Israel, being the hot core of events within the Arab region. He indicated that some states do not almost appear in any Arab summit statements or meetings of Arab foreign ministers, which means that the Arab order and the ideology it is built upon do not express the interests of those countries and in return this order is not concerned with their interests, to such an extent that interests of some countries such as Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and others have become top priority since they are neighboring Israel.

He also argued that the major manifestation of Arab solidarity during various crises has so far been diplomatic and rhetorical, especially if the crisis concerns a non-Arab party. He thought that the Arab order has shifted in essence into a system for exchange of diplomatic support.

Abdul Gawad expected that the war on Iraq would further intensify the crisis of the Arab order. He thought that it was more preponderant that this order will reach a stage of severe schism, skepticism and lack of trust among its member states, indicating that schisms would be strictly ideological and would decrease cooperation and joint Arab action. He considered that the Arab League’s existence fulfills, first and foremost a cultural necessity, rather than pure interests. He said that so far there is no evidence that the security of Arab states is better in the presence rather than the absence of the League, and that there is no particular and specific interest that justifies its existence.

He concluded that it was necessary to have a coalition between countries wishing to reform themselves correctly and those which are capable of acting in cooperation with others. He considered that this coalition could create a pulling power for the rest of the member states that would urge them toward joint action in specific directions. He also mentioned that states capable of restoring the rule of law within their societies would be capable of coming closer together, and stressed that the fulfillment of joint interests does not require the existence of a single nation.

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