6 - 12 May 2010
Issue No. 997
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875
The Arabs, weak by choice
The history of the Arab League since its inception in 1944 suggests that the
Arab regimes have long chosen to be weak and irrelevant, writes Hasan Afif
Nation states in the area from Morocco to Iraq, including the Arabian
Peninsula, share a distinct culture and history and speak Arabic, albeit in
hundreds of dialects. While Arab nationalism is "ingrained in the soul of Arab
individuals based on the sentiments of a glorious past", Arab unity is today
still needed to deal with the challenges of 21st-century orientalism.
The European colonialists divided the region, planted the state of Israel, drew
borders and supported its ruling regimes after stripping them of their
legitimacy in favour of tribal and local nationalism, and as a result the
region remains the hostage of its imperialist past. Each state within the
region has developed its own laws, culture and history, and each has developed
its own interests, which in many cases are not shared by others.
The establishment of a strong union of these nations that could defend their
interests against the big bullies of the world, similar to the European Union,
cannot be taken seriously under the present regimes, whose policies cast doubt
on their legitimacy. In fact, the history of the Arab League since its
inception suggests that the Arab regimes have chosen to be weak and irrelevant.
In October 1944, delegations from Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Trans-Jordan
passed what they called the "Alexandria Protocol", which provided the basis for
the creation of the Arab League. Saudi Arabia joined the protocol in January
1945, and the League pact was signed in March.
The Arab League was established according to the wishes of Great Britain as a
prerequisite for the admission of the Arab states to the United Nations. The
number of League member states has now reached 22, with members being supposed
to coordinate and collaborate to safeguard each other's independence and
Yet, whenever the League's members have been called upon to meet their
obligations, they have failed individually and collectively to do so and have
proven that they are high on rhetoric and low on action.
Attempts at union among Arab states have had short lives, but wars, violence
and human-rights violations have become the trademark of the region. The
1958-1961 union between Egypt and Syria failed, and the 1958 union between Iraq
and Jordan was aborted in the same year, when the Iraqi royal family and its
supporters were massacred during the military coup led by Abdel-Karim Qassim.
Muammar Gaddafi proposed federation between Egypt, Libya and Syria in 1972, but
this project was abandoned in 1977, and the 1990 merger of north and south
Yemen is in trouble, with separatist sentiment in the south being strong.
Sudan has been embroiled in a civil war that has taken the lives of hundreds of
thousands and will certainly lead to a divided Sudan, either into north and
south or east and west. The West and Israel are actively involved on behalf of
the separatists, and the Arab League has chosen to act as a spectator.
Even under occupation, the Palestinians are bitterly divided politically with
Hamas governing the Palestinians in Gaza and Fatah only nominally governing the
Palestinians in the West Bank. The Arab states have been accomplices in
Palestinian infighting, supporting one faction or another.
The only successful union in the Arab world has been that between the United
Arab Emirates, due to personal relationships among the families that control
the UAE's six city-states and the feelings of insecurity that come from living
next to more populous and more powerful neighbouring states.
The Arab League has failed to live up to what its name implies. In the 1948
Arab-Israeli War, five members of the League decided to intervene militarily on
behalf of the Palestinians, but they waited until more than 250,000
Palestinians had been uprooted and thousands massacred. Jewish armed units
methodically dehumanised Palestinian non- combatant civilians, attacking their
villages, demolishing their houses, carrying out mass ethnic-cleansing, and
hunting down thousands.
While the Palestinian depopulation process was unfolding, the rhetoric employed
by members of the Arab League reached new heights, which the Jews, both before
and after the establishment of Israel, exploited to perpetuate the myth of a
potential "second Holocaust" carried out by the Arabs.
Such rhetoric gave the Israelis an excuse to use their military power to occupy
more Arab land and to remove the remaining inhabitants of the areas they had
conquered by force. Israel was portrayed as a weak David attacked by an Arab
Goliath, and Jews all over the world and their sympathisers came to the rescue,
providing volunteers and material support.
Yet, facts on the ground always suggested something different from what the
myths present. The nascent state of Israel with its half a million population
had more manpower and arms than the total Arab military contingents that came
to defend the Palestinians. Besides being outnumbered by their opponents, Arab
League armies did not have the political will to fight, and they were fighting
more against each other than against the Israeli military.
Personal animosity among the leaders of the Arab states made the military
intervention futile. They surrendered Palestinian land through their
incompetence and corruption, instigating mutual antagonism and promoting their
leaders' agendas at the Palestinians' expense. The Trans-Jordan Arab Legion
commander-in-chief John Bagot Glubb called the 1948 war "the phony war".
Nineteen years later, the Arab states surrendered the West Bank, Jerusalem, the
Gaza Strip, Sinai and the Golan Heights to Israel in the 1967 war. The
Egyptians never intended to go to war in 1967 and moved their troops into Sinai
to warn Israel not to attack Syria. Yet, Egypt's decision played into the hands
of the Israelis, who were eager not to miss this unique opportunity to take
over all of Palestine.
Israel therefore considered Egypt's action to be a declaration of war and
responded with a surprise attack on 5 June, destroying most of the Egyptian,
Syrian and Jordanian forces. Egypt eventually signed a separate peace treaty
with Israel, leaving the Palestinians and the Syrians to deal with the
consequences of the 1967 war alone.
No Arab League state supported Libya in its confrontation with the US in 1986
when US planes bombed targets in the country killing at least 100 people. The
Arab states again were passive spectators when Arafat was later holed up in his
Ramallah compound, and perhaps killed, because he had outlived his usefulness
to Israel. They were passive once again when the Israeli military attacked
Lebanon and committed horrendous war crimes against the Lebanese and the
Palestinians in 1978, 1982 and 2006, or when it destroyed Gaza in 2008-09 and
murdered or injured thousands of Palestinians.
At the same time, Arab League members have fought bloody wars against each
other in Yemen and Iraq. Following the 1962 military coup in Yemen, Egypt's
military fought to prop up the republican regime in Yemen against the royalist
insurgents, who were aided by Saudi Arabia, which did not recognise the Yemen
Arab Republic until 1970.
Iraq, a member of the Arab League, invaded and annexed another member, Kuwait,
in 1990, and Arab states asked the US to settle the dispute for them. A US-led
coalition of 34 nations then fought Iraq and liberated Kuwait in 1991. Jordan
and the PLO, both members of the Arab League, were treated by the Gulf states
and Egypt as virtual pariahs for proposing an inter-Arab solution to the
The Arab League did not come to the defence of the Iraqi people in 2003 when a
multinational force led by the US and the UK invaded Iraq, destroying the
country's institutions, causing horrific bloodshed, displacing millions and
creating ethnic, sectarian and religious conflict. The Arab Gulf states,
members of the Arab League, provided bases and logistical support for the
invading foreign armies, while Turkey, a NATO member, refused to provide such
The League's impotence and irrelevance in solving such region-wide conflicts
and civil strife has stigmatised the Arabs, who have become the subject of
international humour and disdain. During the 1982 Argentinean-British conflict
over the Falkland Islands, the Argentinean junta leader was quoted as saying,
"we are not an Arab state: we do not capitulate." The United States in turn has
adopted European colonial policies and stereotypical views of the Arabs.
Today, the Arab League has chosen not to back up its policies to deal with Arab
problems, and its members have chosen not to translate promises into deeds. The
support the Palestinians receive from the Arab League comes only in the form of
occasional rhetoric and the advice to accept Israeli- American dictates.
The Arab states have assumed the role of mediators, rather than defenders, of
the Palestinians. And, despite their close relations with Washington, the
moderate Arab regimes have no influence on US policy towards the Palestinians
if they wish to intervene on their behalf. While the 2006 Arab League summit in
Khartoum pledged to fund the Palestinian Authority, no money was provided
because members yielded to an Israeli- and US-led campaign to deny aid to the
Saudi Arabia pledged $1 billion to rebuild Gaza, but, like other promises, this
one has not been kept. League members pledged to break the Gaza siege, but
instead they became partners with Israel. Egypt is currently building an
Israeli-designed and US-financed steel wall along its 10km border with Gaza,
which will complete the Strip's isolation in violation of the besieged
Palestinians' rights under the Geneva Conventions.
Collectively, the Arab states have the potential to be politically,
economically and militarily respected. They have the manpower, the natural
resources, the strategic location, a sizable middle class, and they have the
capital. But they choose instead to be weak and irrelevant. Ruling elites are
entrenched and estranged from their peoples, and they have no respect for human
rights, suppress dissent and weaken internal opposition.
Such elites have not allowed the opposition to act peacefully, to demonstrate,
to call for change, or to rise up. Only grassroots Islamist movements now
threaten these regimes. Some Islamist movements have followed ambitious
strategies to seize power, while others seek cooperation and gradual change.
This has been the case while the Arab ruling elites have created authoritarian
regimes and chosen not to invest in the intellectual, human and material
resources to build socio-economic infrastructure for their citizens.
Instead, they have chosen to create consumer, and not productive, societies by
investing their countries' resources in the West rather than in their own
people and creating jobs for the unemployed. The Arab regimes have chosen to be
disunited with no common purpose, thus becoming powerless to support any
decisions they make.
Regarding the Palestinian issue, the Arab regimes have chosen to submit to the
US, Israel's main strategic ally and the defender of Israel's aggressions and
its violations of Palestinian human rights and international law. The US does
not hide its bias against the Palestinians. Instead, it labels Palestinians who
refuse to succumb to occupation and humiliation "terrorists", and it calls the
mass murder of Palestinians and the collective punishment Israel imposes on the
Palestinian civilian population "self-defence".
The Arab League has often reintroduced its 2002 "land for peace" initiative,
while threatening to take it off the table if Israel goes on ignoring it. Yet,
the League does not have to withdraw the plan. Israel has already rejected it
through its provocative rhetoric and bloody deeds, and as long as the Arabs
choose to be weak they cannot do anything about it.
* The writer is a political analyst born in Nablus, Palestine. His forthcoming
book, Is the Two-State Solution Already Dead? , will be published by Algora
Publishing, New York.
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