Home | Comment & Analysis    Monday 29 March 2004

The Arab League: "bi Yadi la bi Yadi ’Amro!"


Mahgoub El-Tigani

March 29, 2003 — Following days of "closed" discussions between Arab foreign ministers (Tunis: March 27, 2004), the Arab States suddenly decided with the hosting state Tunisia to postpone the Arab Summit for an indefinite period of time although Egypt and Yemen, amidst Tunisian objections, suggested Summit meeting in Cairo next April.

The Summit delay was not quite surprising to many observers. "There is too much to handle," interviewees relayed to the Arab media today. "The Arab States condemn Israel every time they meet. To establish the permanent and lasting peace in the region, they ask for immediate return of the Syrian Golan, full recognition of the Palestinian rights, and implementation of the UN decisions in this regard," many Arab interviewees affirmed. "Not by violence. Both Arabs and Israel need to negotiate peacefully:" only a few voices ascertained.

Among these voices, a statement addressed by Al-Quds University President, Abdu Rabo, and other distinguished Palestinian intellectuals for Hamas and the other organizations to struggle peacefully for Palestinian rights after assassination of the Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yasin was strongly rejected by Hamas. When would the Palestinians unify with one another before they ask the other Arabs to unite behind Hamas?

And yet, a bigger question was asked by a forum of human rights activists (Arab Institute for Human Rights, Cairo: March 2003): "what have the same Arab States done to guarantee the human rights of their own peoples, stop their security suppression of civil society and opposition groups, and democratize their repressive systems?!"

The Summit Communiqué draft the ministers prepared for their kings and presidents to adopt in the aborted Summit ascertained "the need to empower women to remove all barriers that restrict women’s participation in the social, economic, and political development" (Akhbar al-Yoam: March 27, 2004). The Tunisian statement, nonetheless, attributed the failure of Arab top diplomats to agree "to discrepancies, non-agreement, and ambiguous positions about women rights, human rights, and democratic change."

What was the communiqué draft saying about Sudan? It said: "The leaders ascertain their solidarity with the Sudan and the unity and sovereignty of Sudan, request the regional and international parties to support the peace efforts in Sudan, and appreciate the efforts of the Sudanese government to make peace. They emphasize the political will of the Arab States to reinforce peace, urge Member States and Arab financial groups to provide development support for peace, and appreciate the Secretary General’s efforts in this regard."

In other words, the Arab ministers spent good time at the Bahira Suburb in Tunis to exchange courteous greetings with one another avoiding all hot issues for which handling they and their presidents should seriously act. What form of "empowerment" most Arab States actually guarantee for women when hundreds of human rights groups struggle with no positive response for the ratification of CEDAW by the reluctant governments all over the Arab region?

What kind of "solidarity" the Arab League needs to emphasize to ensure the "Sudan unity" while they all know the unprecedented State warring against Sudanese citizens all over the one million nation by the Sudan Government; and what is the purpose of this rewarding appreciation the Arab ministers graciously offer in the communiqué draft for the Sudan Government’s elusiveness and exclusionary policies versus the democratic opposition in the peace process, let alone the horrors of the government’s escalated war in DarFur?

Days before the ministers’ meeting, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights issued a statement asking the ministers to allow Arab human rights activists to participate with observer status in Arab summits. The request was immediately rejected by the Arab top diplomats whose agenda, ironically, included "the situation of human rights in the Arab Homeland!"

True, the Arab diplomats’ failure to prepare the next Arab Summit was equally attributable to a bitter scramble for Arab League political and ideological leadership between the League nationalist leader ’Amro Musa and his supporters vis-à-vis non-nationalist Arab States. The conflict has been escalated in light of the changed politics of Iraq, the pro-western transformation of Libya, the "moving" moderation of Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon, and the extreme hostility to the Arab classical nationalism by the westernized Gulf Cooperation Council.

What remained of the League foreign ministers’ agenda was likely a safe-face threat by Musa to resign in protest, which might take place later on as the pro-western structural changes of Arab politics continue to march Arab political institutions away from the anti-western Arab nationalism.

The failure of Arab ministers to assign a date for their kingly presidents (all excessively privileging themselves to rule by formal state powers) reflects both internal and external reactions. Externally, the western military, diplomatic, and economic pressure upon Arab leadership to show more compliance with international norms in terms of regular democracy and civil freedoms is quite observable.

"We want to do it by ourselves rather than by western dictates," reechoed the angry protest by many Arab leaders to the West external pressure upon them to reform State performance, control terrorist groups, and allow wider margins of democratic rule. For the most part, however, the western pressure is conditionally appreciated by popular movements as a significant source of support provided that the West shows full recognition to the right of popular movements to participate in the national decision making of their own countries. The case of the Sudanese democratic opposition participation in the ongoing peace talks of Naivasha is a clear example.

On the other side, the Arab leaders protest to the west Middle East project to democratize the region might be reflective of the arrogant psychic of many authoritative rulers who might still be influenced by the Arab ancient wisdom: "bi yadi la bi yadi ’Amro!" This ancient wisdom is ill-suited to the contemporary politics that appropriately experienced international mediation via UN agencies and treaty-bodies as a legitimate modality to help resolving State Members’ internal conflicts.

For practical purposes, the west democratization attempts in the region might be channeled through the UN international bodies. Question is; who of the Arab leaders wants to share the people they rule in a UN based democratic transition?!

Unfortunately, most of the Arab leaders have not yet proved good listening to the United Nations Human Rights Commission in which Sudan Government among some of the worst human rights violators preach human rights matters for whose gross violation they have been unrelentingly condemned for decades. In fact, Omer al-Bashir and his minister of justice Yasin agreed today that the Commission intention to question his government’s warring crimes in DarFur "is unwarranted!" (Al-Massa, Cairo: March 29, 2004).

Internally, the security-repressed popular striving for the full enjoyment of international human rights norms and democratic rule has been shaping in varying degrees as well as different forms in response to the faltering economies and the political repression of many Arab governments. Wasteful expenditure for kings or presidential guards, state corruption, and repressive rule by single party systems are the main causes of the non-development of Arab States rather than external factors.

The "let us do it ourselves" hypocritical position of the Arab ruling elite is pertinent to their determination to stay in power to cover up wasteful governance, avoid independent prosecution or trial by the use of power, and suppress to no avail the popular movements for democracy and human rights.

Added to many popular "movements" inside, the Arab intellectuals representing different ideologies and political groups, in exile, constitute a major challenge to the bad governance of Arab States. The freedoms these intellectuals enjoy in western societies without fear of the revengeful authorities at home clearly enabled them to address the Arab publics freely via the vibrant literature of human rights, democracy, and peace.

The positive outcome of these movements is largely inhibited by governmental censure at the other end of receiving modalities such as the press and the international internet. The impact of human rights and democracy groups, however, is increasingly revealed in light of a few attempts to adjust government structure and performance, as is gradually processed in a few Arab States.

In Saudi Arabia, for example, the Crown-Prince ’Abd-Allah has been trying to develop a new alliance between moderate intellectuals (who still are strongly committed to Islamic Shari’a in general terms) and his own power structure (including members of the royal family, businesses, and the strong Bedouin-based National Guard that virtually penetrates every family in the kingdom parallel to the formal forces of the kingdom). The arrest of Saudi activists last week by the ministry of interior was a symptom of the deep conflict underlying the kingdom’s ruling elite.

Seen in the intensity of Saudi familial, political, and religious interactions, State reforms internal dynamics augmented with calculated western pressure might apparently guarantee a long-lasting settlement more than external factors might possibly achieve. The case of Iraq is indicative of a similar trend.

According to information relayed to the Arab media on the Tunis meetings, the Arab League foreign ministers placed the Sudanese North-South peace talks, not the new State-made civil war in DarFur, in their agenda as "Arab national security concerns" rather than Sudanese-Sudanese political affairs. Until before the Kenya peace talks, the resort of Sudan Government to the League was largely based on appeals for the League to support the government war versus the South Sudan struggles for autonomous rule.

True, it was only under the ’Amro Musa leadership of the Arab League that the League agenda for Sudan included specific political concerns with respect to the South economic development, which opens the door for Arab investment in the rich south. The Arab League, however, failed to touch upon the other major issues of State religious reform, the transition to democratic rule, and the participation of Sudanese democratic opposition in Sudan governance - the agenda that would definitely frustrate the Khartoum fundamentalist rule since they would help the Sudanese democratic opposition and civil society groups to develop political sympathy within the League.

From its part, the Sudan Government hardly made a serious effort to adjust to the changing conditions of the country or the region. This week, however, an unnoticeable symposium discussed the issues of State application of Islamic theory and practice in Khartoum. The symposium included Sudanese officials of Islamic affairs, the Egyptian Mufti and other Muslim jurists.

One particular recommendation of the convening experts stressed the need to adhere closely to the educational directives of the Islamic League that, in turn, "emphasized both modernity and tradition in Islamic education" as the Symposium claimed. Although it is not possible at this point to evaluate the extent to which the Islamic League’s notion of "educational modernity" complies with international human rights norms, the new drive by the fundamentalist government of Khartoum is worthy of further follow-up.

Several Sudanese education human rights groups have earlier expressed strong criticisms in a number of forums against State theologizing of the country’s secular education. The SHRO-Cairo Sudanese Human Rights Quarterly Issue 16 (October 2003), for example, exposed the theologized system in detail, recommended full revisions of the curriculum, and asked for application of international norms in Sudanese education as was previously applied since national independence much before the seizure of political power by the Islamic fundamentalist rule since 1989.

The "bi yadi la bi yadi ’Amro" State reform restrictive technique by the government experts and guests will not help the NIF presidency/ruling party to get away with the wasteful transformation of the country’s secular education that had been developed all over the 20th century by the best Sudanese as well as non-Sudanese educational expertise.

The only way to redress the education crisis of Sudan is to insure full participation for all Sudanese educationalists, as well as the UNESCO and the other experts on Sudan education worldwide, to reform the system without fear of state retaliation. More or less, this is the right procedure for Sudan and the other Arab League States to reform governance in all aspects of State activities.

Apart from education and other human rights issues, brave confrontations to adjust government performance to the changing contours of the region are slowly - but firmly - picking up with the mounting popular movements to promote the concern for human rights and democratic rule in the region in the present time or in the long run despite the fright of security mentors. (Recently Omer Bashir shuffled his security apparatus to get more ready to repress Sudanese popular movement).

It may be "too much for Arab States to handle," the complex agenda of the transition to democratic rule. In fact, most Arab States, not their societies, are not yet ready to democratize. "Perhaps they would never be," as many interviewees affirmed (Jazeera Channel: March 28-30, 2003). The popular movement, however, throughout the region is potentially ready to take up the job competently, the more that State guarantees increase the doze to allow democratic participation of the civil society in national decision making.

"Sparks make fire," the Arab wisdom once taught. Smaller incidents develop to greater events too. The rejected request by the Cairo Arab Institute activists’ forum to have observer status in the Arab Summit might well come true in a next summit whose leaders would not mind thinking and acting as public servants rather than royal masters. To start this reform, Arab kings or presidents must actualize civil freedoms and human rights without hesitation in the countries they now "personally" control by security repression versus popular rule.

*Member of Sudanese Writers’ Union (in exile) and the president of Sudan Human Rights Organization Cairo-Branch.

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