Here in Doha, it doesn’t seem to be the new political vanguard and locomotive of the Arab world as reported by the international press. These stories followed the prominent role of Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr al-Thani in the Arab League’s weekend decision to suspend Syria and press it to stop using military force against 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.
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’s supposed to represent. The reason for this is that the Arab League is, 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.
That’s why it’s so surprising to see the Arab League uncharacteristically decisive this year on Libya and Syria, offering solace and protection to citizens challenging the authoritarian rule of long-serving regimes. The league’s decision on Libya was half-hearted and without unanimity, and was soft-pedalled immediately afterward by then-secretary-general Amr Moussa. The decision on Syria was strikingly different, with 18 of 22 Arab states voting for the Syrian suspension.
The league also took several other unusual initiatives: to speak with a delegation from the Syrian opposition, and to plan on calling on Arab organizations to provide assistance and protection for dissident Syrians, with the option of also calling on the United Nations or other 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 didn’t only make a historic decision to stop the bloodshed inside an Arab country; it also set in motion a sequential political process that directly challenges the policies and the authority – and perhaps even the legitimacy – of the Assad regime. By engaging with Syrian opposition groups, it firmed up that which the Libya decision had only gingerly touched on: It’s now permissible for Arab states to meddle in the internal affairs of other Arab states, when there’s a clear moral or political reason to do so that reflects the sentiments of a majority of Arab public opinion.
The Arab world is moving in a new direction. And 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 is the rebirth and reassertion of Arab sovereignty 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 U.S. are all responding to Arab initiatives, rather than ordering the Arabs around, as they had done for so many decades. The Arab Awakening continues.
Rami Khouri is editor-at-large of the Beirut-based Daily Star, and director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.
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