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 
Hamas-led government. 

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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