The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Sharm wrap-up

The conference on Iraq in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, is over. Yesterday was a flurry of press conferences, with everybody finally wanting to talk, and with several interesting things being said. For some of the offiicial highlights, you can check out my story for VOA.

Basically, the final statement was identical to the draft, with the countries at the conference expressing their support for Iraq and for the electoral process there (the date for the election has now been set as January 30). There was a call for neighboring countries to control borders and to prevent terrorists and weapons and funding from passing. There was a call for a conference in Iraq to include all Iraqi groups, even ones that oppose the US presence and the interim government, as long as they don’t engage in violent action. And there the statement that the US-led forces’ mandate is “not open-ended�--not quite the wtihdrawal date that France and many Arab countries wanted, but a step in that direction. Various forms of economic and logistical support were promised, although there was a notable absence of commitment to send troops to be part of the so-called UN Protection Force (to protect UN election advisors and monitors). All in all, although it’s unclear whether violence will really be under control in time for the elections, I think the conference was a real boost for the Iraqi interim government. As the French Foreign Minister said, the elections in January are “difficult, and possible.�

One thing I noticed was that the Arab media at the conference was focused on entirely different issues from the Western media. They asked again and again about Fallujah, and were quite confrontational with the Iraqi officials. While the Iraqi officials insist on the (ridiculous) claim that “no� civilians have been killed, the Arab media has leaped to the conclusions that thousands have, and Falluja has become shorthand for “atrocity.� It would be good to actually get to the bottom of this. One thing I don’t understand is why humanitarian agencies weren’t allowed into the city when they wanted to go there.

What I find disturbing is the way both the Western and the Arab media approaches Iraq not as a real place lived in by a real people but as a symbolic battlefield in which to inscribe different ideas of terrorism, colonialism, democratization, Western interference, Islamic extremism, good and evil. Everything that happens there gets reconfigured on each side to match its own ideological grid. The Arab media, with its anti-Americanism and pan-Arabism, has painted itself into a corner where it is almost rooting for more chaos and instability in Iraq rather than peaceful elections and transition. However much you may be dissatisfied or suspicous of the interim governments, this is a bankrupt position. (Western media that doesn’t make the distinction between armed resistance against an occupying army and terrorism against civilians--in the Occupied Territories and in Iraq--is just as blinkered).

I also caught the press conference of the very dour Iranian Foreign Minister Kharrazi. The Iranians were super organized. They took everyone’s name and employer down and called on them in order (it was funny to hear the names of major US news institutions slowly pronounced as if for the first time). They staid for exactly half an hour. Kharrazi said Iran would continue its suspension of uranium enrichment as long at felt it was getting somewhere with the negotiations. He also said Iran would not deal directly with the US being there was no “mutual respect� between the two countries. He called the claims that Iran has been making nuclear warheads “nonsense.� And he said he and Colin Powell, who sat at the same table at a dinner the night before, talked about “nothing.�