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On Thursday the Arab emergency summit was declared dead before arrival. The initiative of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to convene the leaders of the Arab states at a special meeting in which they would adopt a uniform position with regard to a war in Iraq was pretty much ignored. This was probably the first time in the history of the Arab League in which an Egyptian leader invited the member states to attend a meeting, and they behaved as though it were an invitation from their mother-in-law. Even if a summit does finally take place at the beginning March, and not on the date set by Mubarak, the rift is already a fact.

It emerged that the gaps between the axis of Damascus, Lebanon, Libya and Yemen, and the Gulf states, especially Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, are too wide for Egypt to bridge. The foreign minister of Lebanon, for example, came close to accusing Kuwait of being to blame for a possible war in Iraq. Two days later, Kuwait recalled its ambassador from Beirut. Syria demanded that no Arab state provide logistical support for the American forces, while Qatar, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, which are already hosting such forces, thought the Syrian foreign minister had gone daft.

Until two weeks ago, Mubarak, who knows with whom he is dealing, opposed an emergency summit because he knew that the gaps it would reveal would further undermine the "Arab ranks." Why, then, did he go ahead and convene the meeting?

One explanation lies in Egypt's feeling that it has been marginalized in the run-up to a war in Iraq. For a lengthy period, the policy leader of the "Arab world" allowed Saudi Arabia to handle the contacts with the United States and the other Arab states on the Iraq issue, while Mubarak continued to concentrate his efforts on the Palestinian question, which he regards as the true threat.

Egypt constantly fluctuated between a public posture that opposes the war and a secret view, which it conveyed to the United States, that Saddam Hussein has to go. Egypt thus managed to anger both sides: the Gulf states and Washington, because it did not come out publicly and lead a united Arab position against Iraq, and the rejectionist states, such as Syria, Libya and Yemen, because it was not taking vigorous enough action to prevent a war.

The view of Egypt as an isolationist state was especially intensified following Mubarak's phone call to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon after his election victory, in which he invited the Israeli leader to Cairo, contrary to resolutions passed by the Arab League against holding talks with Israel. Mubarak sought to rebuff the subsequent criticism from all directions by a well-tested method: inviting the Arab leaders and letting them try to decide on a common stand. The gambit worked. The Arab foreign ministers, who met in order to arrange the summit meeting, dispersed angrily, and the failure to reschedule the emergency conference shifted the "blame" to other leaders.

On the face of it, this is one more episode in the disintegrating life of the Arab League. In fact, what we are seeing are the first diplomatic reverberations of the war against Iraq, even before a shot has been fired.

"Even at this stage we would do well to start taking stock of ourselves," says an Egyptian commentator. "The leaders of the Arab states did not succeed in displaying even uniform identification with the anti-war demonstrations that were held in Europe. They are unable to come up with a uniform position on the issue of the war. Each country follows its own independent policy on the question of assisting the United States. Effectively, the Arab League does not exist. The joint defense pacts are so many pieces of paper. And suddenly we have to examine the positions of countries such as Turkey or Iran in order to decide what course of action to follow. We are headed for a new strategic order in the Middle East."

It's possible that Mubarak himself delivered the coup de grace to the old order when he tried to convene an Arab summit meeting and thereby exposed the nonexistence of "Arab unity." The features of the new order are not yet clear and sharp, but if we take the remarks of the Egyptian commentator as a basis, together with the behavior of the Arab states in the face of the looming war, we will reach the conclusion that the Arab states are autonomous entities, which no longer need to be bound together in one united framework. That is hardly a new conclusion, though. The new element will be seen when the Arab states cease to appear as a happy family and start to behave as self-interested nation-states not only on the Iraqi issue.