Arab cooperation, not unity

Abdel-Moneim Said
Tuesday 26 Mar 2024

A long-standing critic of pan-Arab nationalism, Abdel-Moneim Said explains the absolute necessity of inter-Arab cooperation


“Joint Arab action” is the only option simply because no Arab state on its own can deal with the common challenges facing the Arab world today. These may be the most formidable challenges this region has encountered since the independence era. It will no longer do just to reiterate the usual formulas of mutual solidarity, or for the Arab League to sound its appeals to mend the rifts among its members, or other such expressions of the intermittent bursts of “Pan-Arabism” that occur in moments when nostalgia blends with a sense of urgency at a critical moment.

As we stand near the midpoint of the third decade of the 21st century, we basically have two sets of Arab states. One remains stuck in the past, in a time of reckless bluster and bombast, indifferent to how that inevitably backfires. They always insist on unattainable goals, regardless of the bloodshed and destruction, as though the sacrifices we have had to pay were fated or the path to paradise. The other group realises that the rest of the world is racing ahead towards progress, and that if they do not start to catch up now, they may not have another chance. Therefore, many Arab countries have exerted great efforts towards this end during the past decade. Moreover, they formulated and began to implement detailed comprehensive development plans to realise their visions for modernisation, progress, and renewal. This group consists of the reformist countries, and they hold that the current circumstances in our region call for wisdom and political astuteness. Instead of proclaiming stances and scoring the greatest number of condemnations, they have chosen the harder path of making positive and constructive change. Unfortunately, this path currently faces a grave danger, which I have spoken about before in this space. The Middle East is gradually sliding into a large-scale regional war due to the gaping wound in Gaza, to which testify the situation along the Israeli borders with Lebanon and Syria, with its potential for spreading towards Iraq and beyond, and the situation in the Red Sea, with its ramifications for the Horn of Africa and the Indian Ocean. The extreme volatility of this war has the potential to impact every country in these regions. Its expansion could jeopardise the progress of the reform processes in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco. It could also aggravate the ongoing conflicts in Syria, Yemen, and Sudan, or exacerbate ominous divides and tensions in other countries that were not as profoundly affected by the political, military, ideological, and sectarian strife unleashed by the so-called “Arab Spring”.  

Remedying this problem before it becomes an obstacle to serious constructive change requires a bloc of countries capable of thinking collectively and devising thoroughly studied proposals and initiatives for preventing the “flood,” on the one hand, and, on the other, sustaining the momentum of reform towards its objectives of building and consolidating the nation-state based on citizenship, renovation of religious thought, and economic, scientific and technological development.  

Joint Arab action must start with a strategy for how to respond to the complex realities where the Arabs are divided into countries in peace and others at war, the Palestinians are split between Fatah and Hamas and the West Bank and Gaza, and Israel has divisions of its own. Furthermore, Israel appears incapable of seizing the historic opportunity that was made and is still available to it to become part of a cooperative regional order, based on building and development (in the framework of the Eastern Mediterranean Forum for example), as opposed to excessive arbitrary force, and murdering women and children. Many Israeli writers, and Western writers in general, have accepted the assertion of former Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban that the Palestinians have forfeited every opportunity to come close to realising their demands. They never thought of applying the same judgement to the Israelis and their leaders. I have, as have other Arab writers, in books and other published writings. However, these observations or analyses were always made after the fact, by which time they had become of little use. Perhaps the time has come to do something while there is still a chance to think and work out how to deal with the Palestinian, Israeli, and regional realities in a way that, firstly, resolves the war and, secondly, enables us to emerge better able to foster and manage a more secure and prosperous region.

The last opportunity for this presented itself a year ago.  It was clearly possible that Palestinians and Israelis could normalise relations and live in peace, through agreements that built on the legacy of the Oslo Accords, the Egyptian and Jordanian peace treaties, the Abraham Accords, and the Arab Peace Initiative. Unfortunately, the current war erupted not only to settle historic and more recent feuds, but also to spoil the processes of reformist regional construction.

Preventing that can only be achieved through collective action which we currently see at work in the attempts to promote a ceasefire, a lasting truce, Palestinian reconstruction, and a transition to an end to more than a hundred years of conflict. The Arab Six-Party Committee is a good start. The product of an Arab-Islamic summit on the Palestinian question, the committee expresses the nine participant members’ condemnation of all harm to civilians caused by both sides and calls for peace based on the two-state solution. This solution needs to be pursued seriously, as it is essentially the way to resolve both the Palestinian and the Israeli questions at the same time and end decades of conflict and hatred. The Arab side has accepted this formula for a solution and in its spirit, it supports the declaration of Palestinian independence and calls for the world to recognise the Palestinian state. In this context, there are two facets in which joint Arab action can come into play to overcome the obstacles. One involves how to help the Palestinian entity evolve from its current condition to become a proper state with a single authority worthy of a state in which arms are subordinate to national policy. The second concerns how to assimilate Israel into the region.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 28 March, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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