The end of an era

                      The last time Secretary-General of the Arab League Aḥmad Abū al-Ġayṭ visited Algiers on 29 February 2020 to discuss a number of matters with President Tabbūn and make arrangements for this year’s summit hosted by Algeria it was made clear that the host, and especially the new Algerian President wants a different kind of Arab League Summit than the ones before. Especially than the last two held in Saudi Arabia and Tunisia, which were profound examples of what this once ambitious project has become. President Tabbūn wanted a different kind of Arab Summit, one with substance and aims, most noticeably by readmitting Syria into the club. And for this aim, to have enough time for preparations – though officially by concerns of the spread of the Corona Virus -, this year’s summit was postponed to the summer, probably June. At that time it rather seemed as an ambitious vow, a PR step for the new president, and indeed the notions did not shake the general public, not even in the Arab worlds, or at least in Syria.

            Since then, however, much has happened, which indicates that might just be enough ground for something fundamentally different. Not only the noticeable gestures by the Emirates show that, but there are many, who wish to mend fences with Damascus and a general Gulf rapprochement is closer than many would think. And there are others, as this year Mauritania and then Oman congratulated Syria for the annual ‘Īd al-Ğalā’ held last week. This is a significant shift in balance, if we consider that in January even Jordan was having serious conditions only to restore bilateral ties, not to mention a general rearrangement. Indeed with the rise of such new leaders as Qays Sa‘īd in Tunis, or Haytam ibn Ṭāriq in Oman the number of those who want a more cooperative Arab stance, one more retaliatory to the outer interfering agendas are growing, for which the Arab League could be an ideal ground. At least in theory. And in light of the tragic scenes in Libya and Yemen, the blatant foreign interference in Iraq, Syria, or the Gulf matters, the “Deal of the century” threatening to annihilate any chance for a realistic Palestinian state, and now with the spread of Corona such an approach would be much needed. But can it be done? And even so, would it yield any result?

            In 2008 in Damascus late Mu‘ammar al-Qaddāfī said that the biggest enemy of the Arabs are the Arabs themselves conspiring and scheming against one another, while they have much better relations with the West, even with former colonizers. Though a few decades earlier he was one of the most vocal supporters of Arab unity. He was laughed at then, but one looks back these footages and sees the Arab leaders launching can’t help, but pity what has become. Especially with Libya.

            With the global lockdown by the Corona Virus, it seems most major matters are stalled for the moment, but from the little gestures around Damascus, one can see that the wheels of diplomacy and careful rearrangements are in motion. And the post-Corona opening with the Arab summit in June might just be closer than it seems. Therefore it is proper to have a look at what happened to the Arab League, can its wounds be healed, and what a general realignment could mean, with, or without the readmission of Syria.

            Once Kissinger said that “Arabs cannot make war without Egypt, and cannot make peace without Syria”. Then Egypt was once ostracized from the Arab League, yet life went on and after a decade Egypt was back, thought to an undeniably different Arab League, with different aims and values. Now Syria, which’s capital was once called by ‘Abd an-Nāṣir “the beating heath of Arabism” also spent a decade out of the club, to which now it might reenter. But to what Arab League it will return, and for what purpose? What has left anyways, from the thing once was called Arab League?


What is the Arab League? 

            By now, as we take the existence of the Arab states for granted and the Arab League – by its formal title the League of Arab States – natural combining all the 19 Arab states, and even more with some disputable members it is somewhat forgotten that it was based on a relatively small scale, and under very precarious conditions. It was in 1945 when the whole world was just getting through the rubbles of the Second World War, as the war thorn nations wished for the mutual ground for mediation, to prevent further global conflicts. Though the victorious founding members had their own interests in mind that were the original idea behind the U.N., to which it stood forever since, with all its undeniable shortcomings and mistakes.

            That spirit got on to many parts of the globe, including the Arab world, which for some reason keeps modeling its regional, or wholistic supranational unions on some already created Western example. The Arab League modeled the U.N. than the later the GCC the E.U., just to mention the most visible examples. In this spirit, in March 1945 in Cairo, six states founded the Arab League, which especially now, looking back was ironic, as even some of the founding members like Syria and Lebanon were still under direct French occupation, while some others like Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan were under indirect, but very tangible British influence. Only Saudi Arabia, a very weak and fragile state at that time was independent, and even Yemen joining the same year was partially occupied and thorn by colonialism and internal struggles. And the reason why for long no more Arab states joined the League, only later and gradually, is that because the rest of the Arab world was still waiting for the end of colonialism. With some exceptions, like Mauritania and Somalia, all members joined almost instantly after independence, with the Gulf being the last major batch in 1971, and the last state to join was the Comoros in 1993. Out of the 22 members states all having one vote in the summit decisions, there are another 6 non-voting observer members – Brazil, Venezuela, India, Eritrea, Chad, and Armenia -, and by now models the U.N. fairly well with its structured organizations and with its ever more diminishing effectiveness.

            The original aim, which in theory changed very little in time, was to support the freedom of the Arab people and to nurture economic, political, and social cooperation and developments between the regions, or states of the Arab world. Which was not only highly problematic at the beginning for the members state themselves having fundamentally different ideas about the future and struggling against one another, but also by the lack of structural, or organizational infrastructure. This meticulous task was started only after the shock of the first war with Israel, and in 1951 Council and the committee were agreed upon. However, it took another two years to set up the post of the secretary-general, as permanent representative and caretaker. Main decisions, however, are decided in the summits, held annually every year at different hosts since 1964, with emergency summits summoned in case of need, at that has become in time the real common deciding forum. Though in 2001 a common Arab Parliament was decided upon, formed by elected delegates from member states respectively to their population, in 2004 it was decided to have Damascus as its permanent headquarters, as the Secretariat was residing in Cairo. This was supposed to take up the task of daily cooperation and the formulation of common policies from the secretariat and some organizations. Sessions only began partially, when the headquarters was moved in 2012 because the war erupting in Syria, and since then it has no real function, with the final proposal to move it to Baghdad.

            The Arab League never had a common military force, only the principal of a joint defense pact in 1950, but it held the idea to form and deploy joint forces in case of need, while seldom, but was used for peacekeeping missions in Darfur and Lebanon. Thus also following the model of the U.N. Though in 2015 by Egyptian persistence it was agreed to form a permanent common Arab armed force, mostly to respond to the threat meant be Dā‘iš, division and distrust between the members were too grave to achieve this. And since that time realities shifted so much that the matter practically fell out of interest. Thought by now that would be much needed, as for the Western-Israeli “traditional” threat Turkish and Iranian was accompanied, these matters are openly discussed, but the fundamentally different aims make such a united stance impossible.

            Altogether the Arab League achieved very little and very much at the same time. Indeed by now, the Arab states have all gained their theoretical independence, with the matter of Palestine still pending, though the League had much less to do with it than the initiatives and the sacrifices of certain states. It also managed to create task-oriented organizations for health, education, sports, or agriculture, which – just like with the U.N. – made much better progress than the organization itself. On the other hand, it proved itself absolutely ineffective. Not only to halt internal struggles between the members, but even to repel foreign interference, or at least to create a united front. That is because policy and structural decisions were always built on ideals and principles, rather than realities, while actual implementation rested upon the aims of the most influential members. That being its biggest success, ironically, as it managed to become the exact model for the U.N.

            And though it was never its intention, nor was it among the principal ideas at creation, much of its development and internal progress rolled around the matter of Palestine and Israel, as members states had completely different approaches and ways to handle the problem.


The role of Egypt

            When the first steps were taken and the Alexandria Protocol was accepted in 1944 by representatives of the six founders, it was clear that these states are in completely different developmental status and face absolutely different realities. Therefore they have completely different aims, resulting in different visions for the Arab League, and that meant an internal competition from the very beginning. And in that, quite naturally, the biggest in size and economic output has the most role to play. That is Egypt, which managed to keep its prominence through the decades, regardless of its shrink in relative weight given by the new members, its suspension for a decade until 1989, when the seat of the League was moved to Tunis. But unlike Syria, Lebanon, or Iraq, which all saw an opportunity in the League to gain support against foreign occupation, or for safety in unification, Egypt had seen it as a tool to safeguard its prominence in the region. At that time Egypt was still a monarchy tied very strongly to the U.K., and the ruling dynasty was in rivalry with other Arab states. That was a classic dynastic rivalry with the Saudis influencing the Gulf, and the Hāšimīs ruling Iraq and Jordan at that time, having an eye on Syria. And this rivalry for hegemony rendered all attempts for effective unification impossible because Cairo saw the League for what it has become by now. A legal measure to sanction, when necessary, in the head of the strong, but otherwise the perfect way to prevent major block forming up against it. In this divide-and-conquer equation, Egypt was kept its influence to determine regional trends, and it could also sustain its position of chief arbiter with the West. Though the revolution, which brought in the era of ‘Abd an-Nāṣir was a sharp difference, as than Cairo indeed made attempts for a common Arab stance, the result did not really change. Because ‘Abd an-Nāṣir himself was viewed way to strong and a threat to local independence, many joined ranks against his policies. The lesson was that though no course can be taken without the approval of Egypt, Egypt on its own is not big enough to rule alone. With this conclusion drawn, under Sādāt Egypt returned to its original policy to be the chief arbiter always having its own interests as a priority. So bitter was the experience under ‘Abd an-Nāṣir that Sādāt did not even hesitate to step over the League’s decrees and made peace with Israel to recover its lost lands.

            That was a major step in the history of the League, as for the first time member was acting alone, clearly breaking the resolution of the 1967 Khartoum summit stating that no member state can make peace, recognize, or negotiate with Israel individually. The most shocking and unprecedented step was that such an influential member went completely against the measures of the League, for which there was no policy. So Egypt was ostracized and the center moved to Tunis, for the lack of power in the same magnitude as Egypt capable of taking its place, but that did not prevent Egypt to conduct its own policies and in time make its way back to the League. By that time, to fill the vacuum it created, and to take charge once again.

            This first practical absence of Egypt from the common Arab framework was a bitter and utterly incompetent period, in which Ṣaddām Ḥussyan’s Iraq, enjoying the support of the Gulf was very close to fill the same role, only to lose it all in the war against Iran. Which ironically, with the ongoing Lebanese civil war and Syria’s sinking in it, only accelerated Egypt’s return. Once again it was proven that the Arab League cannot function without Egypt, but with its return, the organization slowly sank into incompetence and neglect. Because for two decades after Egypt’s readmission it was nothing more than a mere tool in Cairo’s hand to present a virtual influence and primacy over the Arab world to the West. This role was challenged somewhat by the progress in the 2000’s, the rise of Syria and the Gulf, and the absence of Iraq and Algeria as major players, which allowed other institutions to be suggested, like the Arab Parliament, but that was all crossed over once against by the so-called “Arab Spring”. Which brought in the second practical absence of Egypt from the rulership of the Arab League, but with much more catastrophic results.

            Nothing shows the influence of Egypt over the League and its history that headquarters was always in Cairo, except the period between 1979 and 1989, and out its 8 Secretaries-General until now, all were Egyptians, except the Tunisian aš-Šadlī al-Qulaybī taking the post while Tunis was the center in the ‘80s. And just how incapable for change, what a reminiscence of past it has become, it shows that the current Secretary-General elected in 2016, meaning in the as-Sīsī era already, was the last and most trusted foreign minister of Mūbārak.


The second absence

            The return to the Arab League was perceived as Mubārak’s only real success with the biggest Arab forum, as from the point of reentry to the wave of the “Arab Spring” the Arab League slowly faded into complete ignorance and disinterest. In fact it was seen more and more as a facilitator of Egyptian coordinated Western policy in the region, with very little affect for the benefit of the whole community. This was clear in so many Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, when the League was a mere mediator hardly distinguishable from the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, or in the two American invasions of Iraq, when it practically rallied support for the invasion against a member state, instead of giving support. While that was somewhat justifiable in 1990, as one member state attacked another, namely Iraq invaded Kuwait, there was no such ground in 2003.

            This state was so visible that it nurtured all the alternatives, as possible candidates tried to challenge Egypt’s hegemony, either on sub-regional, or regional level. That is how the GCC, the Arab Maghreb Union was initiated sub-regionally, bypassing the Arab League and leavening it behind, and later the idea of the Arab Parliament came up a possible mean to overrule the ineffective system.

            That might seem to be a complete failure from the outside, but it was in fact Mubārak’s biggest success. He managed to bring Egypt back to the club, from where his much more celebrated predecessor Sādāt was kicked out of, and even managed to form it for his own likings, serving the old “divide-and-conquer policy for Cairo’s sole benefit. What that made particularly harmful was the fact that it is the same time Egypt started to grow ever more dependent on the Western, especially on the American support, and its economy was practically refitted, consumed by foreign multinational companies. Which had catastrophic effects lasting until this day, getting more and more severe? Practically a self-surrendering Egypt was tightening its grip on the biggest common Arab organization, resulting in its practical demise, and in the raise of alternatives. Which later failed as well.

            Egypt from the beginning used the Arab League to contain fellow Arab states within its own orbit. Under ‘Abd an-Nāṣir it tried to rule the others via this forum, and tying them together it tried to drag the others along. It failed. Then, after ‘Abd an-Nāṣir, and especially after the ostracism in 1979, though the theoretical rope was even cut, Egypt tried its best that no other can fill its roles, while the Arab League looked for an alternative leading state to replace Cairo. And that failed again. Especially in the Mubārak era, the same old system ruled once again, but either way, it was proven that the faith of the League and that of Egypt are absolutely inseparable. With its population of roughly 1/5 of the total Arab nation, and consequently giving the biggest amount of intellectuals and scientists, but also the biggest amount of uneducated poor and radicals, it was clear that Egypt is the very state that cannot be left out of the Arab League. All the more obvious that even geographically it sits in the middle of the region, connecting the Arab East (Mašraq) and the Arab West (Maġrab) historically, culturally, and economically no other state can. Egypt might not have been able to lead alone, but the biggest problem was that since Mubārak it didn’t even really wish to do so, only not to let any other state take its primacy.

            However destructive that role was, after 2011 it was shown that the absence of even such a weakened Egypt is so catastrophic. The lesson the most economically potent Gulf states drew from the ‘80s when they used Iraq as a from for their agenda, and later from their good relations with the West surviving all turmoils whole all others suffer that in theory, they can replace Egypt together. True, that they lacked the manpower and consequently the military capacity to implement direct policy, but with the finances and Western benevolence they can make up for that. So in theory, at least as long as they stick together, the front what was Iraq and later sadly ineffectively Egypt can be put aside, given all other, stronger candidates can be undermined, and some of their economic and manpower reserves can be utilized. And this theory was tested ever since the first wave of the so-called “Arab Spring” hit the region, which to some level affected all the other possible candidates for primacy from Egypt to Syria and Iraq, even Libya and Sudan, while Algeria was still in a paralyzed state. And the lack of cohesion, to some level the exact result of the Mubārak era’s policy, ensured that these states cannot help each other.

            That overtake went relatively well with the knockout of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen as their economies were penetrated and to different levels taken over. And here we should remember that GCC policy was overruling all other considerations from 2011 very so until 2015/16. So boldly that was expressed and not hidden anymore that as this project was breaking down in Syria by late 2012 Qatar even suggested sending Arab troops to topple the Syrian government. From which by then the very same Qatar managed to take its membership in the Arab League as well, and give it to its pawns. Has Syria fallen the faith of this project surely have been different, but by 2013 the original cracks within the group, within this perceived new ruling elite started to show, and the Emirates managed to stage a practical coup against the thus far leading Qatar. That manifested in the change of the terrorist factions in Syria and Iraq in the expense of those supported by Qatar, the coup in Egypt against a Turkish-Qatari supported a government in favor of a pro-Saudi/Emirati one, and most significantly in the sudden change of ruler in Qatar that summer, which is still not fully explained. That even went on as the Emirates pulled Egypt ever closer to its own orbit, even on the expanse of Saudi, securing a new and energetic Crown Prince in Riyadh under the practical guardianship of Abū Zabī, the siege against Qatar since 2017, the sudden shift in Yemen were the Emirates has just carved up something for itself, and so far finally with a comeback to Damascus.

            From 2011 on, until at least 2013, but practically until this very day Egypt has abandoned the Arab League, and its “theoretical” leading role is vacant, or was to some extent filled by Qatar, and now the Emirates. Yes, since 2013 Egypt has a stable government, practically a remodeled version of the Mubārak system with his younger version, but this Egypt is fundamentally different. Unmistakably weaker.

            Let us see just four clear examples. For years now Egypt has a major dispute with Ethiopia wishing to build a major dam on the Nile, which has huge consequences to Egypt, as its agriculture is solely dependent on just hat one river, and the majority of the population lives next to it. So far it hasn’t been able to reach any success deterring Ethiopia from the project, nor has even managed to get Sudan’s full support, also highly affected by it. And while it was in desperate need of Khartoum’s support Riyadh and Abū Zabī secured a political change there, which weakened Sudan by the ongoing turmoil. Yet Egypt barely had any saying in that process.

            For the second, Cairo has a long feud with Turkey since 2013 for its encroachment into its internal affairs, and that war manifests in Libya between the two contesting government now. Egypt positioned well, having the Emirates, Algeria, and even Russia on its side with no real superpower against it, the war is on its doorstep, and yet it cannot secure an easy victory. Quite the contrary, in the last few weeks the Turkish supported side in advancing, though Egypt is heavily involved in the war.

            For the third there is Syria. Ever since as-Sīsī took over there were speculations that Egypt will soon play a supportive role in Syria and help Damascus, and there were slow positive steps from sending helicopter pilots to train Syrians to a recent meeting between the two directors of security agencies in Damascus. But were is Cairo in the whole conflict, apart from some random brave statements by as-Sīsī never followed by action? Only now that the Emirates is making huge steps for Syria Egypt started to sing the same tune that Algeria started months and the Emirates weeks ago.

            And lastly its behavior in the Corona epidemic. The virus hit Egypt hard, though far from the levels seen in Iran or Turkey. Regardless of its high level of poverty and overcrowding in major cities, its official numbers with roughly 4300 cases and 300 deaths on 26 April are remarkably good. All know that the worst might just be ahead, yet in this situation, on 21 April Egypt sent military planes with medical supplies to the USA. In such a state, while Egypt gives no help to any other Arab states and is in imminent danger of suffering the faith of Iran or Turkey sends medical help to the Americans.


            Very telling about the priorities, as it is hardly anything more than a PR move, unlike Tunisia for example, which sent a medical team to Italy, which is a much more substantial help. And that was in response to a direct asking for help, unlike in Egypt’s case.

            This is clearly not a policy of leading. But unlike before 2011, Egypt does not even influence the individual matters anymore.


A return. Can it be done?

            It should be noted that the time of Egypt’s second practical absence from the common Arab scenery is the time of Syria’s first such time, being excluded from the Arab League. For one reason, or another that was a clearly devastating period for the Arab world. Most clearly visible by the reactions for the “Deal of the Century” and the Trump’s moves to just give away Arab lands to Israel, like the Syrian Ğulān.

            Egypt surely cannot return to its former positions of either and active, or passive leader of the League, but Syria can theoretically retake its former role of coordination, and for many reasons. Either by Ba‘at ideology or stubborn Syrian conviction Syria for long was the most vocal and advocate promoter of common Arab grounds. Also, since the best days of late President Ḥāfiẓ al-Asad the real strength of the Syrian government was always its capability to pull the strings behind the scene and secure support and alliances. The war on it and the support it manages to secure by its allies is the best witness of that. Such cooperative skill is surely needed now, in such a divided scenery. And any state about to take a leading role in the Arab League must have direct access to the Palestinian field, as the history, this organization showed that for right or wrong, major deliberations always rolled around the Palestinian-Israeli matter. Taken Algeria for example, no matter, how devoted it is for Palestine, it suffers from not being able to influence the matter directly, having to rely on either Egypt, Jordan or Syria. Therefore the reactivation of the Arab League as a common platform for regional cooperation could very much welcome Syria, especially that it just came out victorious from a destructive war.

            But the war in the last ten years greatly reduced the support among Syrians for common Arab causes, regardless of the political statements. The refusal for the very phrase “Arab” is growing in Syria, being slowly replaced by a distinct Syrian-Levantine identity. And that is not a coincidence. While most of the foreign fighters killing Syrians came from Arab states, just like the money and support, no Arab state gave direct support for Syria fighting this war. Support came only from Lebanon, but not from the government, and Iraq, but not officially. And while most Arab governments expelled Syria from the Arab League and supported the war against it, many even took part in it, the allies that came to its aid were not Arabs, but Iran and Russia beside from smaller participants. In such a context the question is clear. Why would Syria even want to go back?


Would it change anything?        

            Surely Damascus, at least the government would welcome a dignified reentry, as it would prove that its policies were right, it would be a signal that the war is over, and would enlarge its sphere of a political movement. There is a clear political benefit in it.

            On the other hand, as the number of leaders willing to put behind the destructive decade of the Gulf supremacy, even states like Oman, or the Emirates, the reintegration of Syria would be a ceremonious occasion, a triumph to be presented that the old ways failed. And some, like the re-emerging Algeria, could hold Syria high as a good example of resistance, while also promoting itself to further its role regionally and secure its political position internally. But could Syria fill the vacuum a diminishing Egypt leaves behind? Does it even wants that?

            Realities of the last few years suggest that Damascus is much more interested in the Axis of Resistance, which just have proven itself. Surely for the compensation of the Iranian influence, on one hand, the now growing Russian one on the other Syria can benefit from a more emphatic Arab role, but realistically that hold little prospect.

            On the other hand, the reintegration of Syria might mark an end of an era and the beginning of another one, but Syria can surely not fill the role Egypt once had. That is simply beyond its capabilities, and even its desires by now.

            Once Syria will be reentered to the Arab League it will surely be an end of an era. But unless a more broadly founded mechanism takes its place with more realistic approaches the further disintegration and decay of the Arab world is unstoppable. Because if even the “beating hearth of the Arabism” stops believing in any common cause, what prospect is there? Can the wound of the last decade fall in so many frontiers be healed?