Arab League summits have become renowned in the Gulf region as venues for the annual ‘diplomatic circus’. Circus performers, in the shape of diplomats, who display immense dexterity at word-juggling, and in turn stretch the limits of the Arabic language in their attempts to disingenuously convey their collective and foremost concern for the Arab homeland, in over twenty different combinations, to the Arab people. Added to that, there is a regular dose of Gaddafian comedy which, to the Libyan leader’s credit, rests in memories up until the next showing. The above characterization may be rather harsh, but striking elements of truth in it are undeniable to the impartial observer.
At a time in which the Middle East is facing critical challenges, there surely should be no room for public charades, yet, the recently concluded summit in Doha proved to be little different from the usual – albeit with a few exceptions. The text of the final communiqué, just as those of years past, did little except pay the usual lip-service and plastered even more sugar-coating over the deep rifts between Arab leaders.
By all accounts, the Middle East is currently undergoing dramatic change. Pre-existing contours in its geostrategic and socio-political environment are also experiencing rapid alteration. Whether these changes will amplify as to require the reshaping of political structures in this largely autocratic neighbourhood remains to be seen. Nevertheless, the Arab people have begun to realize an important tool in their sluggish and hurdle-ridden course for rights: namely, a “voice” that resonates with the majority of its peoples, and which commensurately impresses a readiness, on their part, to shape their own destinies. While it is easy to get ahead of ourselves, bearing in mind that such words were on many lips in the Fifties of the last century, there is no question that the present levels of movement on the Arab street have been most promising, by far, in recent decades.
In this respect, analyzing the postures taken by traditional strongholds of regional power provide a good indication of these underlying shifts, and show how the ‘old guard’ plans to go about reacting to these changes. The notable absence of Egyptian premier, Hosni Mubarak, from the recently concluded Arab League Summit in Doha was thus more revealing perhaps than his presence would have drawn attention to.
First, relations between Qatar, host of the Doha Summit, and Egypt have soured over recent months owing largely to the growing stature of Qatar as a pragmatic and effective mediator of regional crises as was observed by an independent Middle East commentator: “Hosni Mubarak of Egypt chose not to attend the summit altogether … His reasons were juvenile and partially borne out of jealousy for Qatar upstaging Egypt’s traditional role as powerbroker in the Arab world and mediator of its internal disputes”.1 Furthermore, the brewing differences have not been purely due to the stepped up role of Qatar, but also borne out of disgust for the results from its’ mediation. Particularly in the case of Lebanon, where the Hizbullah-led opposition obtained a veto-power in the Lebanese cabinet as part of a reconciliation deal struck in Doha.
As a result of such outcomes, Qatar has been blamed for proximity to Iran by the likes of Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The snubbing of Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani, the Qatari Emir, from the recent four-way mini summit held in Riyadh, apparently upon strong Egyptian insistence,2 was thus not a surprise.
Second, the coming together of Arab dignitaries in Doha for the Arab League summit came merely months after the brutal war on Gaza during which, the Qatari Emir called on an emergency summit. Not surprisingly, that summit was also boycotted by Egypt and Saudi Arabia among other US “allies” in the region. In response and in variance from the norm, Qatari-based television station, Al-Jazeera, reflected the anger of the Arab street against a fellow Arab-nation by reserving special criticism for Egypt’s role in the war on Gaza.
At a time when the world was up in arms, from South America to Europe, against Israeli brutality in the besieged Gaza strip, Egyptian silence and collusion in aggravating the humanitarian crisis by shutting off its borders, led to an inevitable collision course with the Arab masses. On its part, state-run Al-Jazeera intensified its criticism of the Egyptian stance, even more so, after Mubarak’s snub of the emergency Doha summit. With grievances against Egypt’s perceived treachery still fresh in memories, and the touchy Gaza case still on the agenda, Mubarak chose to avoid the summit altogether, and gave the hard shoulder to Qatar and regional critics who would have undoubtedly placed the Egyptian president in a somewhat difficult position.
Third, Mubarak’s absence from the Doha summit was in as much a show of disgust against Qatar, as it was a declaration of defiance to the Arab world. Egypt views the handling of its end of the Palestinian question as a strictly ‘no-go’ area. In a statement read out on behalf of the president, head of the Egyptian delegation Mofeed Shehab declared: “Egypt has respect for all Arab states, big and small … but none should attack it [Egypt] … nor should its role be subject to attack”.
It is important to highlight here an interesting relation between the declared messages of states like Egypt and Saudi Arabia regarding the Arab Initiative, and their concrete actions on the other hand. The Saudi-Jordanian-Egyptian alliance has been reading from the same script, without fail, for the last few months: a script that centres around the Arab Initiative, and its efficacy, above all other mediums, in achieving Arab-Israeli peace. Although much has been made of the initiative by the so-called “moderate” alliance, the explicit statements made by Mofeed Shehab clearly indicate that a collective Arab position — resulting from any dialogue or exchange of ideas — on the mood, approach and players involved in best putting the Arab Initiative into action, remains firmly out of bounds. All these variables appear to have been fixed; undoubtedly by the Saudi-Jordanian-Egyptian alliance and its masters.
Egypt further cemented its prejudiced interference in the Palestinian question (which should again not be subject to question) when it excluded the victims of Israeli brutality in Gaza from the Sharm El-Sheikh reconstruction conference. A writer in an Arab daily captured the farce of the conference by noting: “had it not been for a few side comments, you would have thought that Gaza had been struck down by a natural disaster”.
The Arab Initiative thus acts as useful leverage for the Saudi-Jordanian-Egyptian alliance to exclude non-partisans from the scene. At another level, the initiative acts a smokescreen to deal with regional “threats” and to settle scores while impunity is assured (even from any regional reprimand). This was most noticeable in the attempt to wipe out Hamas from the Palestinian equation during the recent war on Gaza, and also in the Summer of 2006 when the Saudis labelled Hizbullah’s operation as an “act of madness” whilst bombs rained on Lebanon.
Fourth, the simmering discontent on the Egyptian streets due to both internal and external factors, and the growing realization that the nation’s internal fate is intrinsically tied to its regional role, has led to renewed impetus to revise long-standing truisms in Egypt’s foreign policy, particularly vis-à-vis Israel, amongst the public.3 The dictatorial ruling elite in Egypt on their part, have long identified the strong cross-relations between the rise of Hamas in the Gaza strip, and the amplification of the domestic threat posed by disconcerted masses. Wilful Egyptian collusion to the slaughter of Gaza therefore, did not raise many eyebrows on the streets of Cairo, for the masses are well aware of the price that needs to be paid to keep in place the vestiges of Mubarak’s power.
In a recent piece that appeared in the Badeel newspaper, the shocking levels of dilapidation in Egyptian society are exposed.4 Forty-four percent (44%) of the population find themselves below the poverty line with earnings of less than a dollar a day. Unemployment figures have soared to twenty-nine percent (29%) and the level of illiteracy presently stands at twenty-six percent (26%). The degradation in healthcare conditions and the prevalence of social ills have moved Egyptian society perilously close to the edge.
All these would seem unrelated without regard for a simple fact. Egypt has been the second largest beneficiary of US foreign aid since 1979 i.e. the year of the signing of the Camp David Accords. Since then, US foreign aid to Egypt has averaged about USD $2 billion annually in military and economic aid. To find the second largest beneficiary of US aid faced by such systemic squalor, even after three decades in power, says a great deal about the tick boxes that qualify one for being a recipient of US monies.
Fifth, as has become customary over recent months, no summit that includes any of Saudi Arabia, Jordan or Egypt is complete without a prescribed amount of Iranian-bashing. The head of the Egyptian delegation began his address in the name of the president by issuing a stark warning to “non-Arabs” who “feed differences [sic]” between Arab nations. If there ever was a more obvious target for an implicit warning, this one would surely rank close to the top. Of course, the president of Egypt had by this time had conveniently forgotten about his treachery against fellow Palestinian Arabs mere weeks earlier.
Hurling accusations at Iran is not without purpose. It has become a convenient deflector of attention from the evident failures of the Saudi-Jordanian-Egyptian alliance in forming any real, objective vision of a self-sufficient and sovereign Arabia. Additionally, the alliance hopes, through this deflection, to shift the Arabs’ principle adversary from Tel Aviv to Tehran.
Hosni Mubarak and his fellow comrades in Riyadh and Amman have tied the destinies of the Arab world to the feet of their thrones. The, now apparent, odium of the Egyptian premier for the Qatari Emir is not purely a personal issue, but is rather indicative of a strategic and fundamental schism that stands irreconcilable for the foreseeable future. Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt find themselves in a precarious situation: they cannot disembark off the US ship (by extension Israeli) on which they have sailed for so long — suffice it to say, one that happens to be sailing over incredibly rough waters. As evidenced by the statistics, these leaders stand polarised and deeply unpopular in their own nations, reigning only by virtue of US military life support.
Looking to formulate a different approach in confronting the critical challenges that face the Arab world is totally unacceptable from the standpoint of the Saudi-Jordanian-Egyptian alliance. Yet, this alternate strategy, which is so feared and conspired against within the palaces of Riyadh and Cairo, was once again emphasised and succinctly captured by the Syrian president in his address to Arab dignitaries in Doha:
“The comprehensive change taking place now is similar, to a large extent, to the process of reshaping the world which happened towards the middle of last century, when we begged others for rights which were originally ours. We handed them those rights so that they return them to us.
They ignored us then and still ignore us now. Since we try not to make the same mistakes again, we need to realize that the world respects only those who respect themselves, does not concede a position except to those who take their positions with their own efforts, and does not return a right except to those who work hard for returning their rights, hold on to them, defend them and fight for them.
Only when we do that it means that we are at the beginning of the right road towards the future.”5
The Arab street has had enough of false promises and drawn out hopes. The realization that for one to be treated with respect and dignity by the world’s powers, one ought to first affirm their own dignity and practise self-respect, will inevitably put the Arab masses at odds with autocratic rulers who have forced them to internalize their indigence.
And so, the agitated masses will watch on with disgust as these public charades (termed as summits) carry on with their usual routines, hoping like never before for the curtain to fall.
- ‘Arab League’s “Reconciliation” Summit A Bust’, Dissident Voice, April 4th 2009. [↩]
- ‘Egypt’s president skips Arab League summit in Doha’, Gulf News, March 28th 2009. [↩]
- ‘Egypt’s opposition wants Camp David shelved’, Daily Star, March 31st 2009. [↩]
- ‘Exposing the President’s account’, Badeel, 1st April 2009. [↩]
- ‘President Bashar al-Assad addresses the 21st Arab Summit in Doha’, Syrian Arab News Agency, March 30th 2009. [↩]