Analysis & Opinions - Agence Global

The Arab League Awakening

| Nov. 16, 2011

DOHA -- Here in Doha, Qatar, it does not seem to be the new political vanguard and locomotive of the Arab world as reported by the international press. These reports followed the prominent role of Qatari Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani in the Arab League’s decision last weekend to suspend Syria and pressure it to stop using military force against its civilian protesters. The idea that Qatar is making its move now to assert a leadership role in the Arab world strikes me as exaggerated. 

The real story at hand is about the revival of Arab sovereignty -- expressed obliquely in the slow steps the Arab League is taking to pull back from the brink of irrelevance, and actually play a meaningful political role that responds to the sentiments and values of the Arab people, whose sovereign will should and can shape state policies.

The Arab League has long been a cross between the forces of fiction and futility, a largely meaningless organization that has enjoyed neither impact nor respect in the Arab arena it is supposed to represent. The reason for this is that the Arab League is, after all, as its official name indicates, the “League of Arab States.” Arab statehood has been simultaneously one of the great frailties and cruelties of the modern world -- for the most part offering citizens less than a minimum of those things that a successful state is supposed to provide: security, identity, representation, equal opportunity, rights or quality services. A league of dysfunctional states is a monument to immobility and irrelevance, and such has the Arab League been for many decades.

This is why it is so surprising to see the Arab League uncharacteristically decisive this year on Libya and Syria, offering solace and protection to citizens in those two countries who are challenging the authoritarian rule of their long-serving regimes. The League’s decision on Libya was half-hearted and without unanimity, and was soft-pedaled immediately afterwards by the then Secretary-General, Amr Moussa. The decision on Syria this weekend was strikingly different, with 18 of 22 Arab states voting for the Syrian suspension, and the League also taking several other initiatives that are genuinely historic elements in the move: to speak with a delegation from the Syrian opposition, and to plan on calling on Arab organizations to provide assistance and protection to dissident Syrians, with the option of calling on the United Nations and international bodies for further assistance if needed. If you look far enough ahead in the distance, you can see the outlines of indictments at the International Criminal Court rearing their heads.

The Arab League did not only make a historic decision to stop the bloodshed inside an Arab country; it set in motion an entire sequential political process that directly challenges the policies and the authority -- and perhaps even the legitimacy and incumbency -- of the Assad regime in Syria. By engaging with Syrian opposition groups to plan a transition from the current conditions, it firmed up that which the Libya decision had only touched on gingerly: It is permissible now for Arab countries to meddle in the internal affairs of other Arab states, when there is a clear moral or political reason to do so that reflects the sentiments of a majority of Arab public opinion. 

It is fascinating to contrast how the Arab League has moved to stop the killings in Syria, with the total inability of the Arab world to address the years of bombings and assassinations in Lebanon, especially in early 2005 when the late Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s death and many others were only investigated by an international special tribunal that was formed by the Security Council of the UN. Neither the Lebanese state nor any combination of Arab states could do anything then in the face of sustained murder and criminality.

Today, the Arab world is moving in a new direction. We may be witnessing the first tangible impact of the Arab uprisings, citizen revolts and revolutions on those Arab elites that still control most governments in the region. Arab regimes may be starting to pay attention to the sentiments and values of their people, who widely reject the kind of killing of civilians that has taken place in Syria since late March.

The other fascinating new development we see before our eyes is the continued rebirth and reassertion of Arab sovereignty, will and influence within the Arab world, after decades during which the incompetent and politically derelict Arab states largely surrendered their regional security and ideological functions to foreign powers, especially Israel, Turkey, Iran and the United States. The Arab League is now making decisions whose consequences are ricocheting around the region and the world like heated corn kernels in a popcorn machine. Consequently, Israel, Iran, Turkey and the United States are all responding to Arab initiatives, rather than ordering the Arabs around, as they had done for many decades. The Arab Awakening continues.

Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon.

Copyright © 2011 Rami G. Khouri -- distributed by Agence Global

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For Academic Citation: Khouri, Rami.“The Arab League Awakening.” Agence Global, November 16, 2011.