In Lebanon and Beyond: Could the Arab League be on the Verge of Resurgence?

Arab League-bashing is a favorite past time of the Arab masses. There is, at best, a sense of resignation that the Arab League is an institution that has failed miserably in resolving the conflicts engulfing our region.

The last annual summit of Arab Heads of states in Damascus, in March this year, was met with a chorus of apathy on the streets of Amman, Cairo, Casablanca, Gaza and every other corner of the Arab world. The only thing that seems to get people to turn on their TV sets is the perennial (and always entertaining) Gaddafi speech, with the average Arab viewer wondering just how far the Colonel will go in his latest oration.

It is difficult to blame the Arabs for deriding their league. The seeming impotence of the Arab League in the face of adversity is quite legendary. As the situation in Palestine, especially Gaza, deteriorates, as the cruel civil war wages in Iraq (not to mention the illegal invasion that sparked it), as the Darfur situation worsens, the Arab league stands totally powerless. And this is just a snapshot of the current crop of crises in Arabia. The history of the last six decades since the founding of the League in 1945 is deluged with examples of the Arab League’s inefficiency and incapacity to resolve any of the major issues facing the region.

But then, in the midst of all this inaction, we woke up one morning last week to the sight of a truly extraordinary and improbable achievement: a real Arab League success. The Arab League’s success in brokering an agreement between the endlessly feuding Lebanese factions is a major triumph of unprecedented caliber. Of course, particular credit is due to the Qatari Government and the few Arab Foreign Ministers who devoted their time and energy towards the attainment of this goal in the period leading up to the agreement. But it was the institution of the Arab League that made this entire effort possible and, despite all our instincts to disbelieve, we should all recognize that.

The success is particularly laudable in light of the initial inability of the Arab League to put a meeting together quickly enough to respond to the surge of violence in Lebanon that started earlier this month. When the decisions of the Lebanese government to dismantle the telecommunications network of Hezbollah and to remove the security chief of Beirut airport unleashed an unprecedented reaction by Hezbollah on the streets of Beirut, it took the Arab League almost a week to get the Foreign Ministers of its members to meet.

When the Foreign Ministers finally managed to congregate, most Arabs didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. With Beirut burning for several days, the sight of this belated meeting was discouraging to say the least. And we all were betting on the usual result, i.e. a few speeches, a couple of incidents, and then the dignitaries pack up and head home on the earliest flight.

Somehow, Arab will manifested itself, with the rival factions of Lebanon compelled to agree to attend a meeting in Doha, Qatar, as a direct result of the meeting of the Arab League. Even then, we all thought it was a meeting doomed to failure. As the days wore on in Doha, we were sure it was all going nowhere. As leaks broke through informing us of the latest disagreement, we all shook our heads with the usual air of resignation mixed with disbelief.

And then, despite all of our misgivings, the Arab League managed to do what Sarkozy, Bush, the United Nations and many others have failed to do: Secure a deal amongst the forces of the great Lebanese divide that had brought the country to a standstill for 18 months and was about to take the country down the dark tunnels of civil war.

Lebanon is now celebrating the election of Michel Suleiman as its new President, filling a vacancy that has persisted since November last year and that could not be resolved through 19 previous attempts in Parliament.

In all of this, credit is due to the indefatigable nature of the Arab League’s Secretary General, Amr Moussa. I have always marveled at his extraordinary capacity to soldier on despite the failure of Arab countries to reach agreement on any major political issue.

As we reflect on this achievement, there is a lesson for us Arabs that is worth noting. We seem to have taken cynicism in the Arab world to new highs. We are artists of self-deprecation, and not of the charming, Hugh Grant variety!

I am not belittling the reasons for our cynical or defeatist outlook. We sure have tons of reasons to be downcast about the present Arab predicament. From coast to coast, Arab countries face daunting challenges ranging from civil wars to a seemingly unstoppable and downright scary proliferation of religious extremism. The helplessness with which we watch crisis unfold is enough to put anyone in a state of anxiety or depression.

But it is time to try and snap out of it. And one way to do that is to try and inject a few more ounces of self-belief and belief in some of our institutions. Or, to be more precise, perhaps part of the answer to all the problems we face in the region lies in applying ourselves to work patiently to improve the lot of our institutions and systems, such as the Arab League and various national institutions.

The answer could be in a little bit of application and effort towards our current systems. For example, many Arabs rightly worry about the chronic lack of democracy in Arab countries. And in this state of eternal concern and sarcasm, they leave any institutions that have some semblance of democracy to fall prey to either the thoughtless or the extremists amongst us. Any knowledge of the history of true democracies shows that many of the oldest democracies developed with time, with Parliaments and their processes improving through the effort of citizens. The British Parliament was a highly imperfect institution and it took the dedication of people throughout centuries to work within that institution and lead it to where it is today.

The same is true of more effective models of regionalization. The European Community did not reach where it is today without the commitment of people to its symbolism and the effort of a number of thought leaders. This process managed to turn centuries of war into a period of great economic harmony that was unimaginable to most in the aftermath of World War II. The Gulf Cooperation Council is fast becoming almost EU-like in its ideals and practice. The Arab League could in turn yet prove itself to be the nucleus of a major change in Arabia. One important area is that of the economic role of the Arab League.

HH Sheikh Mohamed Bin Rashed, the Ruler of Dubai, suggested two years ago an idea that could prove pivotal if applied. He suggested an annual summit of Arab leaders that focused purely on economics, and ways to improve the economic situation of all in the region. In other words, the League could have one annual summit for politics and one for economics. How refreshing would that be? With Arab Presidents and Kings gathered to focus entirely on economics, the room for rhetoric would diminish further and the opportunity for effective brainstorming would widen.

And so, today, as we reflect on a major achievement of the Arab League, and the sense of timid hope that prevails in Lebanon as a result, let us for one small moment exercise that emotion that has eluded us Arabs for so long: Optimism.

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