The Arab Summit was held this year amid crucial circumstances, an outcome of internal disturbances in some Arab countries and external interference in others.
These extraordinary times demand of Arab political leaders that they be up to the level of current challenges, or that the summit reveal every Arab political leader's real standpoint towards what's going on in Arab countries. Naturally, political affairs superseded economic concerns.
The Arab Summit concluded with a communiqué that deserves to be analysed objectively. Before tackling the communiqué, we must pause on the Egyptian president's speech at the opening of the Arab Summit. It is, in my opinion, the most significant speech Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi has given since he took office as head of the largest Arab state. The significance is not because of the enormity of the Arab issues the speech addressed, but because of the clarity of vision and consistency it offered regarding many Arab issues, even if there is disagreement around this vision. This vision came out clearly and simply in a confusing time where duplicity in standpoints at the international and Arab levels is flagrantly rife.
The speech started with general assurances on what is common between Arab states and peoples. It underlined the refusal of religious, sectarian and ethnic discrimination and exclusivity on the grounds that such discrimination constitutes subversion against the state, the historical process of building the nation, and state development.
It emphasised, also, the importance of proceeding with the formation of a joint Arab military force to be the instrument of defending Arab national security. However, there is no consensus regarding the outlines of Arab national security at the moment. Old talk about the state security and peoples' security is not the problem; there is an overt clash between states themselves.
Arab Gulf countries adopted a clearly antagonistic stance towards the Syrian state and before it the Libyan state ahead of Muammar Gaddafi's downfall. In Iraq, separated from Gulf countries by animosity during Saddam Hussein's rule, remnants of which persisted after his downfall, the criminal US occupation founded a system based on sectarian and ethnic quotas that resulted in a central authority closely attached to Iran and uncomfortable with Arab Gulf countries. Even in the Arab Maghreb, the issue of Western or Moroccan Sahara remains a divisive factor causing different visions towards national security between the two biggest countries in that region.
The proposed joint Arab military force will express the common vision of the countries that participate in it, and of the country — or countries — that will finance it. In this sense, Arab national security will mean the security of those specific countries that join the force.
A number of great Arab intellectuals have contributed in academic and national efforts to define the concept of Arab national security and the challenges it faces, on top of which the Zionist entity, founded on usurping and occupying Palestinian and Arab land while trading in injustice and aggression. However, present Arab national security priorities in the vision of some leading countries that have financial power at the moment are quite different from that of the model presented by the great Arab intellectuals, and that of the Arab national states when they were laying the foundations of their national independence amid the colonial project for hegemony over the Arab region, its resources and markets.
Meanwhile, tyranny and the curtailment of personal and political freedoms, including the exploitation of religion in politics, constitute pressing challenges to Arab national security that threaten to tear apart countries from within, even without external interference. Ignorance, poverty, social injustice, unemployment and corruption threaten the structure and stability of Arab countries in turn. These internal challenges are decisive relative to the cohesion of Arab societies and their capacity to address external dangers.
The participation of Arab societies in protecting Arab national security will be based on readiness to sacrifice based on faith in a free and a just homeland, not as a consequence of coercive mobilisation, which will be of no use in the case of an external invasion from a brutal force, such as the criminal US invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The president also pointed out that religious discourse should be purified of fanaticism and extremism. He called on religious institutions to activate their role to achieve this aim. In spite of the nobility of intention, religious institutions in the Arab world are different according to sects and denominations, and some do not differ in their way of thought from the most criminal extremists except in representing extremist thought, while the extremists constitute an executive arm oozing blood due to the inherent criminal violence in extremist ideas.
Perhaps keeping religion as a relationship purely between man and his god, away from commercialising and exploiting it, politically and economically, in an opportunistic and degrading manner is the most important aspect that can make a difference in religious discourse. It is noteworthy to mention that all the disasters of extremism and sectarian and denominational division originated from conflicts around power and wealth dressed religious and sectarian garbs. If there were 10 religious parties belonging to the same religion every one of them would consider its religious outlook as the true religion itself while others are violators, thus requiring clashes among them simply because they compete over who owns the keys to religion and who are its spokesmen.
The historical experience of developed countries denotes that building a modern state, politically and economically, and being civilised and enlightened did not take place except through separating religion and the state in a manner that ensures religious freedom, due respect to other religions and places of worship, and the non-interference of religious institutions in the political and economic matters. Curtailed are individuals, parties or groups that use religion to justify political or economic outlooks as though divinely ordained and not their outlooks and their interests.
The president's repeated call to review religious discourse and confront extremism and terrorism operating in the name of religion and that distorts the image of Arabs and Muslims in the world is an extremely important one and necessitates purifying educational curricula and cultural institutions from everything that instigates extremism and religious and denominational fanaticism.
Regionally, the unity of Syria and finding a political solution to the Syrian crisis is the evident path for the president, illustrated in his speech. Syria was the country that blew up Kirkuk-Latakia oil pipeline — one of the lifelines of the Anglo-French-Zionist war machine during the Tripartite Aggression on Egypt in 1956. Syria thus risked overt confrontation with these criminal powers. Syria is the twin of Egypt. Engaged alongside Egypt in the October War, each on its own front, Syria is united with Egypt in a common destiny. This reality, expressed by the president, is different from the option of subversion and destruction of the Syrian state, embodied in the dealings of some regional and neighbouring countries, and some international powers.
It is difficult to accept talk that the Arab countries backing the forces of extremism and terrorism that are destroying Syria are concerned with the Syrian people's freedoms or with democracy. Democracy and human rights are barely observed in those very states that support forces of terrorism and extremism in Syria!
Asserting the need to confront terrorism and pursue negotiations at the same time in Libya reflects flexibility on the part of Egypt in its standpoint, illustrating the great importance Egypt attaches to what’s happening in its western neighbour with which it has historical ties among the most profound in the region and with any country in the world.
As for the new terrorist menace represented by using information and communications technologies and the internet for inciting and spreading extremism, the best treatment is a media based on the truth, science, national interests and using law to confront abuses. Equally or more important is accomplishing political and economic goals that keep society away from extremism and makes it spontaneously antagonistic towards such groups and calls. As for calls to restrict freedoms in communications and social media, they are not compatible with the realities of the current times and clash with the nature and culture of the new and young generations at best.
Regarding the final communiqué of the Arab Summit, it asserted many ideas expressed in the Egyptian president's speech, thus illustrating Egypt's continued capacity to influence the Arab orientation as a pivotal and central force, whatever the standpoint or political options of its regime.
Even the stance towards Syria, leaving its seat empty when earlier it was occupied by groups sponsored by the United States, France, Turkey and some Arab countries involved in efforts to disintegrate the Syrian state, is easier than before. Isn't it strange that the issue of supporting the besieged, fugitive and legitimate regime in Yemen was one of the pivotal issues in the summit while at the same time important Arab countries are involved in the war of toppling the legitimate Syrian regime and financing the forces against it, most of whom are terrorists or allied with the West and the Zionist entity?
As for the economy, it was almost absent from the Arab Summit. The final communiqué only repeats general phrases asserting the importance of Arab economic integration as part of the Arab national security system, the importance of completing the Greater Arab Free Trade Area, achieving food security, sustainable development, and best exploitation of natural and water resources. In this respect, the communiqué is like a declaration of intent that does not mean anything in reality.
Until now, a collective approach of Arab cooperation in solving Arab economic problems is absent. There are 17 million unemployed in Arab countries according to official figure, and more than double that number according to independent studies. Vast masses of the Arab nation suffer under the poverty line while a few affluent segments or families hold mountains of wealth. There is stagnation in production structures that lack funding while more than $5 trillion in Arab money is stashed outside the Arab world and out of the development equation in the Arab region. Meanwhile, development, creating jobs, enabling human beings to earn their living with dignity, providing healthcare and educational services free to the poor, and adopting social justice measures in general, is the main mechanism for building social peace based on consent.
In general we can say that Egypt acted in the Arab Summit as a pivotal and leading state. It remains the region's gravitational centre, considering its population, power, cohesion, civilisation and history that surpasses any other. However observers agree or disagree on Arab Summit results, holding it regularly while sustaining and developing the Arab League as an organisation is necessary in this defining moment. Meanwhile, there remains the most important role — that of the Arab peoples and cultural and political elites. They, too, must rise to the huge challenges of the current crisis, to maintain their states and steer away from disintegrative schemes in building societies based on freedom, dignity, economic development and social justice.
The writer is chairman of the board of Al-Ahram Establishment.