The League of Extraordinary Autocrats
Here's the good news from the Middle East this week: In an Al Jazeera poll of 17,955 viewers just before the Arab League's two-day summit in Algiers, thousands of people voted for "democracy and political reform" as their number one priority--so many, in fact, that they almost equaled the number that voted for "supporting the Palestinians" (26 percent for the former, 27.6 percent for the latter, with a 3 percent margin of error). Furthermore, "independence for Iraq" came in near the bottom at sixth place--trounced by such causes as "improving the status of human rights" and "fighting poverty and unemployment." All these results together suggest that Arab societies are beginning to assign greater importance to development and liberty than to the hot-button issues of Palestine and Iraq. That's a historic and exciting shift.
Now here's the bad news: As far as the region's most powerful decision-makers are concerned, Arab public opinion still doesn't matter. The thirteen-nation Arab League summit did little more this week than stymie the latest initiatives for peace and democratization: Jordan's proposal to improve Arab relations with Israel was nixed; the West's pressure on Syria was denounced as "foreign intervention"; and political reform was mentioned "only in passing," according to The New York Times.
Sadly, the big winners this week were neither Arab societies nor even their unelected leaders. That trophy belongs to Hamas, which has been working for many years to discredit any discussion of Israeli-Arab normalization. Hamas played no small part this week in helping to torpedo Jordan's peace plan. Also, honorable mention goes to an obscure Western consulting firm that is reported to have begun its own dialogue with terrorist groups in Lebanon; more on that in a moment. The trouble with both these mini-victories is that they are a blow to mainstream Arab aspirations.
Underlying the week's many political maneuvers is a familiar tag-team alignment: On one side, authoritarian Arab regimes like Syria and Egypt are clinging to power and Islamist movements like Hezbollah and Hamas are clinging to their weapons. On the other side, Israel and Jordan want to bolster prospects for regional change, for starters by making Islamist militias obsolete. That means encouraging Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to disarm Hamas and cutting off the umbilical cord that ties Hezbollah to Syria. It also means formally ending the Arab League's opposition to Israel. This week's Al Jazeera poll seems to indicate that many Arabs would like to see the latter team succeed. But of course, it's easier said than done. From the seaside splendor of Sharm al Sheikh back in February, Israeli foreign minister Silvan Shalom told journalists that as many as ten Arab governments "have a diplomatic representative in Israel," suggesting their willingness to sign a peace deal. The government of Jordan's King Abdullah II has worked toward that goal over the past few weeks. Jordanian Foreign Minister Hani Mulki argued to Arab leaders that Jordan's peace proposal would strengthen Ariel Sharon's hand to dismantle Jewish settlements (although he later backed off somewhat, clarifying that he was not advocating "normalization," a loaded term among Arab leaders fearful of backlash by groups like Hamas).
Unfortunately, that proposition had too many downsides for the tag team on the other side. The authoritarian Gulf states are struggling to beat down crops of homegrown Al Qaeda-style insurgents--so why should they cede a rhetorical chip by caving to Israel? Egypt's leadership has already paid its dues to Washington by brokering a temporary Hamas-Islamic Jihad truce and permitting select opposition parties to run for the presidency in May--so why take more heat in the region by siding against the Islamists now? Lebanon's hands are tied. And though they are supposedly being untied in excruciatingly slow motion by Syria, they may be retied again if Syria somehow deflects the international pressure it now faces. As for Hamas and other armed militias, blocking normalization with Israel is one of the reasons they wake up in the morning. And this time, it's also a matter of prestige: They want to claim victory in the Palestinian Intifada. Ten new peace deals (or even two or three) between Israel and Arab states would make it clear those groups had lost.
All these considerations have converged in light of America's pressure on Arab autocracies--strengthened by pressure from Arab societies--to reform. Historically, the best way to deflect such pressure has been to claim that it was inauthentic--nothing more than an imperialist imposition--and speak out against the Zionists for good measure. The need to do that again, and do so convincingly, is why Islamists and some Arab rulers are now, in effect, each other's allies of convenience.
Thus the message from the rostrum at the Arab League summit was familiar. Speakers repeated platitudes from the last big summit in 2002, as if Arab geopolitics had barely changed in the past three years. Having ruled out the Jordanian peace plan at the outset, they simply defrosted the hard-line Saudi plan of 2002, knowing full well that Israel has already rejected it and even secured a tenuous truce without it. As for the question of political reform, the tone was set by the following rousing statement from Algeria's President Abdelaziz Bouteflika:
We recognize that it has become imperative for all societies, particularly Arab societies, to [carry out] reforms. But it should also be recognized that we have already arrived at that [conclusion], for we have begun to carry out these reforms. Reforms shall not be imposed on us. I say, they shall not be imposed on us! They shall not be imposed on us!
Presumably the crowd loved it; the crowd, after all, was composed of Arab heads of state.
Meanwhile, in the streets of Arab capitals and via satellite television, Hamas and Hezbollah delivered rallies and sound bites that bolstered the League's retro stance. On the first day of the summit, protesters near the Jordanian University in Amman burned American, British, and Israeli flags, and called on Arab leaders "to form a unified position in support of the Palestinian people and to apply Islamic law," according to Al Jazeera.
Hezbollah chief Hasan Nasrallah assured journalists in Beirut that his movement "would bear responsibility for defending Lebanon and confronting Israeli aggressions." Translation: We won't disarm. And leading Hamas ideologue Mahmoud al Zahhar appeared on an Al Jazeera panel to offer his version of a "mission accomplished" speech, regarding the outcome of the Intifada: "On the issue of resistance and withdrawal," he said, "the goal of the resistance has been to banish the occupation, and now the occupation, its entire apparatus, will leave the Gaza Strip, God willing, this coming July or shortly thereafter." Translation: We won. It's the stick that works. So don't try and sell us a bunch of carrots.
Of course, which fighting force won the Palestinian Intifada depends on your definition of victory. But if ever there was a definition of defeat, it's the toll in physical and human infrastructure that the Intifada has taken on Palestinian society over the past four years. A failure to defang the resistance factions will only guarantee that gang-land culture rules in Palestine and south Lebanon for years to come--whatever political authority prevails there in name. For this reason by itself, it's too bad that the Arab League turned down a ten-state mega-treaty with Israel this week. The sweeping move might have helped to take the steam out of Zahhar's "mission accomplished" and further isolated Hezbollah. Then again, Silvan Shalom and Jordan's King Abdullah may have expected too much out of the rickety League to begin with. Now that the preeminent assembly of Arab leaders has spoken, hopes for transformative change turn once again to the societies they rule.
The role some Islamist movements played in bolstering the leaders' intransigence is manifest for all to see. And that's why, now of all times, it's discomfiting to observe some well-connected Americans and Brits touting their new unofficial dialogue with Hezbollah and Hamas. An Al Jazeera news segment Tuesday reported on an "unprecedented meeting" in Beirut between leaders of the two terrorist groups and a new U.K.-based consulting firm, Conflicts Forum. Participants were said to include "American persons close to American decision-makers." The Forum's co-founder and director, Beverley Milton-Edwards, speaking in English, had this to say to Al Jazeera:
I think the importance of this meeting, as the speaker from Hezbollah pointed out this afternoon, is that this isn't actually about enmity between the people from Islam and Muslims and those in the West. In fact, the idea here is to end this disconnection--for people to understand that there is a common platform between the peoples of Islam and the West. So this is a unique opportunity for opinion formers in North America and Europe to hear that enmity is not on the table.
There's a presumption implicit in this statement: that the militant factions participating in the meeting are somehow representative of the "peoples of Islam." In fact, many of the "peoples of Islam" now favor regional priorities that these factions are aligned against, like "democracy and political reform." You just wouldn't know it from listening to Beverly Milton-Edwards or the Arab League.
Joseph Braude is the author of The New Iraq: Rebuilding the Country for Its People, the Middle East, and the World. This essay first appeared in The New Republic Online on March 25, 2005.