The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Gerges on Arab politics

Throughout the farce that passed for Arab diplomacy as the war in Iraq loomed closer, Western press accounts of half-hearted attempts by Arab leaders to delay or avoid a war often made the news, but they were generally treated with the contempt they deserved. Hence, apart from the occasional sneer at the ridiculousness of Arab League meetings or the impotence of the "Arab street," there was no serious treatment of the failure of Arab diplomacy -- of the Arab system itself -- in 2002 and 2003.

To be fair, the editorial pages of Al Hayat -- occasionally translated on the newspaper's website did follow the debate of "whither the Arab system," but this probably escaped the attention of many "specialists" who were more focused on American-Arab relations than Arab-Arab relations.

Fawaz Gerges, an academic and general commentator on Arab issues, has chipped in on the debate in the latest issue of Dissent in what hopefully will be the beginning of a closer look at the state of Arab diplomacy at the beginning of the 21st century. This diplomacy is clearly in need of a radical overhaul, as are the internal politics of Arab states themselves:

Inter-Arab diplomacy was more of a public relations exercise than a concerted effort at resolving the crisis. Words were substituted for actions. The Iraqi crisis has added weight to the accusation that Arabs are zahira sawtiya (a merely polemical phenomenon), taken seriously by neither friend nor foe. Regardless of whether the ruling elites appreciated the gravity of the crisis and its potential repercussions on regional order, their inaction highlighted not only the splits within their ranks but also their moral bankruptcy.

The more interesting part of the essay is when he points out the nearly unthinkable that should be a central point in a healthy Arab diplomatic system -- namely, that the system needs to be able to police itself. Spelt out more bluntly, this means that (in an ideal world) it should have been the Arabs themselves who should have taken out Saddam Hussein (and should probably take out the House of Saud) rather than, as they have done for the past 200-300 years, wait for an outside power to intervene.

To act on behalf of the people would have required both visionary leadership, a willingness to take risks, and a tough political realism-traits in short supply in the Arab world. What transpired instead on the diplomatic scene were vacuous formalities, procrastination, recrimination, and inaction: in other words, stasis. Arab rulers proved true to the norm, speaking in double-tongued proclamations and innuendoes to their own populations and the world. They publicly swore by the Almighty to oppose the coming war, while privately feigning impotence and promising to support their superpower patron. Never mind that they didn't test or maximize their bargaining power as Turkey did. Never mind that they didn't level with their citizens about being beholden to Washington and about Saddam Hussein's numbered days. A convincing argument could have been made that Hussein must go for the sake of the Iraqi people and the survival of their state-not just because the White House aimed at the destruction of the Baath regime.

But to ask for forethought would have been asking too much of a cynical, hardened lot who have survived for so long by mastering the art of double-talk and obfuscation. Hardly any lessons were learned from previous crises in 1967 and 1990. The problem with their charade is not only that it has deepened public cynicism-unleashing a frenzy of conspiratorial theories; it has also exacerbated the legitimacy crisis of the Arab political order. Never before have the ruling autocrats been as naked in the eyes of their publics as they are now. Never before has the gap been larger between the Arab ruling elite and the people they rule. It is a miracle that the autocratic Arab state system has endured for so long with so little legitimacy. The possibility of its sudden collapse, along Iranian lines, cannot be discounted. In the meantime, politics mutates into extremism at home and terrorism abroad. The seeds of both lie in the structure of the closed Arab system and the unholy alliance between the ruling social classes and the conservative religious establishment.

More of this kind of reflection is needed. In the meantime, this is a good time to celebrate Dissent's 50th anniversary as a groundbreaking publication by visiting the site and perhaps taking a look at founder Michael Walzer's essay on "Just and unjust occupations."