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The Arab Decade to Sept. 11... And Since

Rami G. Khouri

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I worry when I hear the Egyptian foreign minister say, as he did Monday after meeting his Saudi Arabian and Syrian counterparts, that the USA-appointed provisional Governing Council in Iraq lacks legitimacy, and that these Arab states agreed to revive Arab action on Iraq and Palestine. I worry because legitimacy and collective Arab action are two of the greatest problems facing our societies, and repeating hollow old phrases and pursuing discredited policies in the face of our region’s new realities will only ensure more failures, tensions, and violence.


I sense from the Cairo statements that our leaderships refuse to acknowledge the Middle East’s new realities: Foreign armies stomp around our countries, true sovereignty is becoming an increasingly notional and limited concept in more and more Arab countries, extremist ideas spread more rapidly among our youth, violence against Arab and foreign targets become routine in our societies, foreign powers coolly experiment with plans to re-engineer Arab governance systems, and the Arab-Islamic heartland is identified and targeted as the wellspring of global terror. To respond to this mainly by rejecting the Governing Council in Iraq and calling ephemerally for joint Arab action is a display of reactive negativism and romanticism that is unworthy of the dignity of the Arab people in whose name the governments speak.

The Iraqi council’s dubious legitimacy certainly should be challenged. But equally problematic are Arab presidents and leaders who get elected to three and four consecutive terms, often unopposed and “winning” 86 and 98 per cent of the votes, with their political parties chronically controlling over three-quarters of parliamentary seats. When such incredible Arab systems criticise the Iraqi council for a lack of “legitimacy,” my worrying goes into overdrive.

Arab regimes that retain power for decade after decade and continue to behave like this steadily lose credibility—and ultimately legitimacy—with their own people. Consequently, the Arab world has become simultaneously the wellspring and battlefield of global terror, the laboratory for externally imposed regime change and social engineering trials, the locale for daring yet ignominious enterprises of neo-colonialism and reinvented trusteeships, and a fraying economic order with pockets of dynamism and wealth amidst vast and dangerous peri-urban economic wastelands that breed human discontent.

As more and more impoverished, humiliated, and disenfranchised ordinary Arabs seek new life-sustaining strategies, they often encounter the political mediocrity and heightened security tools of their governments. Many Arab societies have achieved the dubious feat of wedding desperation with autocracy, blending the worlds of Franz Fanon and John Ashcroft. One extreme consequence of this has been Osama Bin Laden. The other extreme is the phenomenon of Arab presidents-for-life and ruling parties whose longevity threatens to match that of some of their antiquities sites. If leading Arab states are going to respond to this self-made dilemma primarily by issuing statements like we heard Monday in Cairo, then this region and the world should brace for many more difficult days to come.

The reason is that—amazing as it may seem—we still have not witnessed a collective political response from the Arab people to the Sept. 11 attacks, Palestinian regime change, the war and occupation in Iraq, and ongoing American-orchestrated plans to reconfigure this region by threatening others, especially Iran and Syria. Arab societies have been peculiarly quiet for the past two years, with much talking in the media, a few violent attacks here and there, but mostly silent disbelief and numbed shock everywhere. Just as the people of the United States responded to Sept. 11 by unleashing emotional and military furies on Afghanistan and Iraq, so should we expect a parallel political reaction in due course from the Arab world. We can identify four major points that continue to build up pressure to that end in this region: Popular Arab resentments towards the USA and Israel, respectively; widespread anxiety due to economic stresses; and Arab regimes that seek to counter their domestic credibility problems by seeking refuge in the false dominions of heightened security and perpetual incumbency.

This explosive political and emotional mix will not simply fade away, because it reflects real human agonies that must be assuaged. George Bush still exploits the American version of such a troubled mindset due to Sept. 11. In the Middle East, the ineffective behaviour of immobilised Arab governments continues to increase the pressures within Arab societies. No credible political movements have yet tried to tap the enormous reservoirs of numbed anger and confusion that define this region. When they do, we should watch carefully.

Let’s hope that someone tries to channel this pent-up Arab demand for change, revenge, and redemption constructively, towards better, more participatory, governance, rather than towards Texan-style war. But if irresolute sloganeering continues to define the collective Arab political response to the challenges of Iraq, Palestine, and frayed Arab governance, it could just as easily go in the other direction, towards much more violence and terror. We ignore these trends and options at our peril, as we should have learned from the troubled decade from early 1991 to September 2001. Some of the pressures derive from Washington, London and Tel Aviv, but others derive from our own Arab capitals, as we painfully witness again this week. We deserve better, and we deserve it now.

Published Wednesday, August 13th, 2003 - 08:36am GMT

Rami G. Khouri is a widely syndicated columnist, author, and TV-radio commentator based in Amman, Jordan.

Courtesy of the Jordan Times.

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