League Fatigue

The flop of the Arab League summit shows that Arabs are way ahead of their leaders on reform.


Tunisia’s decision to cancel the Arab League summit came as a disappointment and an embarrassment to most of the League’s 22 governments. But the discontent was tempered in some cases by a tacit recognition that the summit, had it gone forward, probably wouldn’t have accomplished much.

The summit was supposed to give Arab leaders an opportunity to submit proposals for political reforms — reforms pressed by the United States — but the Tunisian government felt the commitment of Arab states toward democratization — from human rights to a greater role for women — wasn’t strong enough for the 22 foreign ministers to come to an agreement on common goals. Some foreign ministers had refused to include certain words like “democracy” and “parliament” and “civil society.”

Add to the mix that, as AP notes, Israel’s March 22 assassination of Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin “made it politically risky for some states to take a stand on a reform plan championed by the Americans,” and the cancellation becomes more understandable.

Whatever the mix of reasons, it didn’t look good. “Certainly this is not one of our best moments,” Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa told reporters. “The Arab system is not in a good shape. It’s important to have a summit.”

Tishrin, a Syrian paper said:

What we feared has happened, that is, ‘agreement by Arabs to disagree.’ The consequences of this painful and ruthless result was a blow to the feelings of Arabs, who were angered that their hopes in the aborted summit evaporated and vanished.”

The office of Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak, issued a statement expressing his “surprise and regret” over the cancellation and offering to host a replacement gathering in Egypt.

Ideologically, two opposing groups had formed on either side of the political reform issue: on one side Saudi Arabia, Syria and Egypt want to resist what they see as bullying by the Bush administration; on the other, smaller states, like Tunisia, argue that the issue of reform deserves serious attention. (It’s worth noting that Tunisia, whose president is a self-proclaimed leader for life, is hardly an inspiring model of democracy.)

According to the New York Times, Nabil Shaath, the Palestinian foreign minister, said that most leaders were disappointed by Tunisia’s decision.

“There was real horror on their faces. They felt that despite all their disagreements, this summit was important.”

How to respondto the assassination of Yassin was another point of contention. According to the Economist:

“Before the killing, they had been expected to use the summit to relaunch a peace plan proposed in 2002 by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Abdullah: under this, the Arab countries would formally recognize Israel in return for its withdrawal from the West Bank and the Gaza strip. But so soon after the assassination, some Arab leaders will have been reluctant to do anything that might look like an overture to Israel’s prime minister, Ariel Sharon.”

The U.S. had a stake in the meeting as well; the Bush administration was hoping for a broad endorsement of democratic reform, proving that toppling Saddam Hussein sent the message that Arab states need to democratize. The U.S. might see the postponement of the summit as a failure for its policies to have a positive effect on Arab sentiment. But some Arab newspapers suggested that U.S. pressure caused Arab leaders to postpone the summit, which was expected to strongly condemn the Israeli assassination of Yassin.

A Lebanese paper suggests that many in Arab countries view the failure as a win for the U.S. The paper writes:

“[A former prime minister] said that the US administration had scored two victories through the postponement. One was in breaking the Arab solidarity with regard to the developments on the Palestinian scene and preventing the Arabs from achieving consensus over the developments in Iraq.”

Al-Quds, a Palestinian paper, agrees:

“The outstanding failure of the Arab foreign ministers and the Arab League, when they announced the Arab summit’s postponement at a time when the Arabs are in the greatest need of unity, shows again the Arab regimes’ current sterility… This failure is a victory for US policy.”

(Colin Powell denied that the U.S. had anything to do with the failure of the summit. “No, we had nothing to do with it. I was hoping the summit would be able to go ahead,” he told reporters in Washington.)

Some observers had had high hopes for the meeting. Says the New York Times: “Given the American invasion of Iraq, and spiral of violence in the region, including terrorist bomb attacks from Casablanca to Riyadh, there had been some expectation that Arab leaders might commit themselves to change.”

But many in the Arab states understood that nothing drastic would have been accomplished. The Jordan Times notes that the summit’s cancellation was no surprise, and argues that the League governments need to commit to resolve to commit to a finding some kind of common agenda before any future meeting:

“To pretend that Arab governments do see eye-to-eye on major regional and international issues is folly in the extreme. The issue of reforms within the Arab nation is perhaps among the thorniest challenges facing the Arab countries. The political, economic and social orientations of the Arab countries are different and sometimes irreconcilable. …

There is no simple fix for all the Arab woes, as it will take time to forge a united Arab front where it counts most. Under these circumstances, there is no sense in pursuing ambitious plans to forge a united Arab stand on major regional or international concerns. …

Searching for a common denominator, constructed on the basis of minimum Arab understanding, may be all that any Arab summit can attain. Previous Arab summit did little to change the course of the Arab nation. As long as Arab summits contribute very little to improving the situation of the Arab peoples, it is better to postpone meetings until a firmer ground for holding them can be reached.”

While the leaders seem to be unable to come to conclusion on a stance on reform, there is a sense that people within Arab countries are ready, writes Jackson Diehl in the Washington Post:

“Either way, critics of the pro-democracy policy — in Europe, in Washington and inside the Bush administration itself — will again proclaim that a neocon attempt to “impose” democracy on the Middle East “from the outside” has foundered. That this resistance to elected government comes from a group of kings, emirs and presidents-for-life doesn’t seem to trouble the critics. The assumption seems to be that the autocrats’ objections are those of their own people.

Yet, they are not. The most underreported and encouraging story in the Middle East in the past year has been the emergence in public of homegrown civic movements demanding political change. Two years ago they were nonexistent or in jail. Now they are out in the open even in the most politically backward places in the region: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria.

But they will tell you frankly: The new U.S. democratization policy, far from being an unwanted imposition, has given them a voice, an audience and at least a partial shield against repression — three things they didn’t have one year ago.”

In the Turkish Daily News, Ilnur Cevik laments the inability of Arab leaders to make the necessary changes:

“News that Arab leaders had to announce the cancellation of today’s summit in Tunis should be regarded a bigger blow to the Arab world than the assassinations of prominent people like Sheikh Yassin.

It shows the inability of the Arab heads of state to openly face the challenges arising from the growing needs of the Arab masses.”