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The Arab World Is at a Crossroads

The Arab World Is at a Crossroads

Monday, 17 August, 2020 - 08:45
Ramzy Ezzeldin Ramzy
Former Egyptian Ambassador and Senior UN official.

I hope that finally there is a realization that the security of Arab countries is facing multiple threats from different sources and on different fronts.

While the Arab world has always suffered from external interventions and internal threats, never before have they been exposed to so many threats at the same time.

Particularly Arab countries with weak state structures, largely arising from protracted civil wars and domestic upheaval, have been even more susceptible to foreign meddling.

Foreign countries, directly or through their domestic surrogates or allies, have seized the opportunity to further their own national interests, which are, in most cases, at variance with Arab collective and individual national interests. Witness Iran, Turkey, Russia, and the US in Syria. Turkey, Russia, France, and Italy in Libya. Iran, Turkey, and the US in Iraq. Turkey and Iran in Yemen. And in Lebanon, Iran and now France. None of these interventions would have been possible had there was a modicum of Joint Arab action.

In turn, such action is only possible if there is an awareness of the link between individual and collective Arab security. Regrettably, the latter has fallen out of fashion over the past three decades.

This is because individual Arab countries, over the past 30 years, have focused almost exclusively on their national interests.

The result has been progressively diminishing security for almost all Arab countries. Witness spillover of crises in Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, and Syria.

At present, there are five simultaneous threats to the Arab region. That of course besides transnational threats such as terrorism, environmental degradation, cybercrime, organized crime, etc....

First, all indications continue to point to Israel’s intention to deprive the Palestinians of establishing a viable state of their own. Were Israel to succeed, the long-term stability of the region would remain elusive.

Second, Iran continues to intervene in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. It is able to do so because of the vacuum resulting from Arab miscalculations. Tehran has legitimate security concerns, but it cannot and should not secure them by intervening in the internal affairs of its neighbors. I have no doubt that Iran would re-evaluate it’s policies in the region if it were to experience resolute Arab collective action on Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Libya.

Third, lately, Turkey’s policies have been considered a threat. Ankara’s encroachments both in Syria and Iraq, together with the latest intervention in Libya, have exposed Turkey’s true ambitions.

Fourth, Ethiopian unilateral action on the GERD has put into serious jeopardy the national interests of both Egypt and Sudan. With Egypt being under a continuous existential threat, would find it difficult to contribute to Arab collective security.

Fifth, last but not least comes what appears to be the implosion of Lebanon. But this is a different sort of threat. It is a threat to both the imagination and aspirations of those who long for an open democratic society. Without imagination there is no hope. Despite its sectarian politics and endemic corruption, it remained a haven for all who crave for freedom of expression and association. The calamity in Beirut could very well prove to be a turning point for the region.

By focusing on external threats does not mean that I am overlooking the domestic shortcomings attendant in Arab countries. There are many and they should be addressed, but that can only take place with the full realization that there is a close interaction between the domestic, regional, and international contexts.

It is my hope that these five threats to the security and imagination and aspirations of the Arabs stimulate a serious discussion about collective Arab security and interests. The international system has been in transition for the past 30 years and the Arabs have been bystanders. The time has come to re-evaluate our position so as to chart our own future, and thereby contribute to the evolving international order.

The question that we should ask ourselves. Have we been better off in the past 30 years than we were before? What can we do now to confront these threats? Can we better face these threats collectively? Can we draw the correct lessons from President Sadat’s peace initiative, particularly how can one transform an initiative by one Arab country into a gain for the security, longtime stability, and prosperity of the region? Can we achieve the economic and social progress that our peoples aspire if we do not confront these threats?

First, we need to realize that taking a piecemeal and fragmented approach to Arab security serves the interests of non-Arabs more than it serves genuine Arab national and collective security. Through our focus on narrow national interests, we have opened the door for foreign encroachment unseen since the end of colonialism.

Second, we also need to realize that the nation-state model is under severe stress be that in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, and Lebanon. Preserving the Arab nation-state is a sine qua non not only for safeguarding the interests of the citizens of Arab countries but also necessary for regional stability.

Third, we also need to understand that the national security of individual Arab States is closely linked to collective Arab security. We are certainly worse of now than we were some thirty years ago when there was a modicum of collective action.

A greatly weakened Iraq, a Syria a mere shadow of its past as a result of civil war prolonged and complicated by foreign interventions, an Egypt looking inwards preoccupied with reordering its affairs after a disastrous rule by the Muslim Brotherhood and a GCC completely distracted by Iranian threats, taken together this state of affairs is exposing Arab countries to malign interventions and even more external threats.

While it would be too much to ask Arab countries to simultaneously confront all these threats, it is possible for them to take specific steps to deal with at least some of them.

First, on the Palestinian front, the Arabs should bury once and for all the “ Deal of the Century “, especially after Israel, according to the UAE has accepted to “ stop further annexation” of Palestinian territories. This would be possible by proposing an alternative plan as a basis for Palestinian- Israeli negotiations. This may be the only way to preserve the right of the Palestinians to a viable state of their own with East Jerusalem as its capital. This is a moral duty. But it is also a political imperative to ensure long-term stability in the region.

Second, concrete action should be taken to bring back both Syria and Iraq to the Arab fold. This requires an Arab initiative on Syria to accelerate a political settlement. In Iraq, this means upgrading cooperation in all fields.

Third, the urgent need to take the initiative on their own or in conjunction with the EU to bring about a political settlement in Libya.

Fourth, Lebanon should not be left alone. The Arabs should, besides providing emergency humanitarian assistance, take the lead in helping the Lebanese people to rebuild their country politically and economically. They should head the lessons of Iraq when they ignored the country for some twenty years leaving it prey to malign external influences. To start with they should make rehabilitating the port of Beirut an Arab project.

Fifth, Arab countries should take concrete action in support of Egypt and Sudan in their Nile waters dispute with Ethiopia. By concrete action, I mean using their influence in international financial circles and conditioning their economic assistance and direct foreign investments on Addis Ababa’s cooperation with Cairo and Khartoum to reach a binding agreement on GERD and the sharing of the waters of the Nile.

Clearly solving intra-Arab disputes would facilitate collective action. Regrettably, that may not be possible in the short run because of Qatar, as it has aligned itself with both Turkey and Iran.

Casting Qatar aside for the time being, the Arabs should act collectively with regard to at least a number of the above threats before it is too late.

I am fully aware that there will be some who will argue: that different Arab countries face different security threats; that collective Arab security is an illusion; that this is the time for Arab countries to look inwards and rebuild. Others will argue that it is impossible to prevent foreign interference in the affairs of the region. That may be true, but it is possible to confront, or at least blunt the pernicious effects of such interventions.

The fact remains that the Arab countries are far worse today than they were more than three decades ago when there was a modicum of collective Arab action. We should learn from our past and draw the right conclusions, and proceed to build an Arab order based on the real economic, security and political interests of individual countries and not on emotions and empty slogans.

The Arab world is at a crossroads, either it takes its destiny in its own hands or it allows outsiders to toy with its future.

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