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Arab disunity on road from Damascus

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Middle East at war The Arab League Summit in Damascus earlier this year put on display the deep rift between Arab states. Rather than a show of unity, the Summit revealed the political disarray that fractures the Arab world.

Saudi Arabia and Egypt, two of the most reliable Arab states for the United States, and the two power houses in the region, snubbed the Summit in protest against Syria's links with Hizbullah in Lebanon. Lebanon, Jordan and Yemen also refused to send senior level representation.

This was an effective boycott and meant that the Arab Summit was not in a position to deal with critical issues of political stalemate in Lebanon and ongoing sectarian violence in Iraq.

These states blame Syria for the political deadlock in Lebanon, which has left the country without a president since November last year. They also accuse Syria of destabilising the region by siding with Iran. King Abdullah of Jordan articulated this sentiment last year when he warned about an emerging Shia's crescent in the Middle East, which includes Hizbullah in Lebanon, the Allawid political elite in Syria, the Shia dominated government in Iraq and the Iranian Islamic Republic.

The growing assertiveness of Iran in the post-Taliban/post-Saddam period and growing links between Iran and Iraq are major sources of concern for Arab regimes. The fall of Saddam has seriously changed the geo-strategic balance of power as Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, had invested heavily in Saddam's Iraq as a bulwark against the revolutionary zeal of Iran. Saddam's fall and the rise of a Shia political elite with established ties with Iran have removed the strategic constraints that kept Iran in check.

The Israeli-Hizbullah war in 2006 which started after Hizbullah launched guerrilla raids against Israel is widely seen in the region as a consequence of Iran's willingness to engage in a proxy war with Israel. The fact that Syria is also a major sponsor of Hizbullah has only served to drive a wedge between Arab states. As the Damascus summit demonstrated, the Arab world is divided between US allies and the rest.

But this is not the only political demarcation. The Arab world is also suffering from a growing rift between the ruling regimes and the people. There is widespread discontent in Arab streets about a distinct lack of political will to settle the burning issues of Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq. The Arab street yearns for a pan-Arab response to Arab problems, while the ruling regimes pursue their own self-preservation.

This rift has major repercussions for political reform. The political regimes in Egypt and Saudi Arabia have everything to lose by engaging in reforms. They may be the best friends Washington has in the Arab world, but that does not mean they would follow the so-called democracy project. If they do, there is every chance they would lose power and deprive the United States of strategic allies. The 2005 parliamentary elections in Egypt in which candidates affiliated with the banned Muslim Brotherhood registered strong support among the electorate at the expense of the ruling party was a vivid reminder of the risks.

Washington has grasped the reality of the situation. It either pushes for political openness and risks losing its Arab allies, or accepts the authoritarian regimes as legitimate at the expense of democracy. After a period of vacillation, Washington has opted for the latter.

This policy of expediency has undermined the standing of the United States, and has contributed to a widening of the rift between ruling regimes and their subjects.

'Lebanon's ruling majority calls for presidential election on May 13' (China View)


Shahram Akbarzadeh Associate Professor Shahram Akbarzadeh is Deputy Director of the National Centre of Excellence for Islamic Studies, University of Melbourne.


Flickr image by Stewf



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Existing comments

A/Prof Akbarzadeh has set out one of the perennial conundrums for proponents of democracy in foreign lands; what if the people really don't want to adopt the values of said proponents?

On the other hand, how can there be an end to conflict without dialogue? Can there be dialogue with no listening?

David Arthur | 17 May 2008  

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