WASHINGTON -- One minute you saw them, then you didn't. The foreign ministers, delegates and journalists who swarmed into Tunis last week for the Arab League summit meeting, which was to grapple with reforms in the Middle East plus the Arab-Israeli conflict, came, saw -- and left.
In fact, they left so quickly after an impatient Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali suddenly canceled the summit that many did not quite know what had happened and were scrambling for plane reservations home.
But Arab officials, like the Arab League's own Secretary-General Amr Moussa, were frank about still another dismal failure at elusive Arab "unity." It was "not one of our best moments," he said as he left the country.
Does this mean much? After all, Arab summits have been notoriously and often ridiculously fractious, made up as they are of Arab sheikhs and sultans, presidents-for-life and every type of Arab nationalist and ideologue, among them some very serious people. Does this truncated event point to anything new in the Arab world? Does it even warrant a story?
Despite everything, the answers to those three questions are positive -- not a big optimistic "YES!" but a tentative little "yes." There ARE new currents roiling in the Middle East -- partly, in all fairness, due to the American bludgeoning of Arab sensibilities in Iraq and in other arenas.
The abrupt recess of the summit, for instance, had to do with the old complaints (the Palestinian question and the United States' support of Israel), but it also had to do with the new wave of criticisms of the many incumbent Arab regimes who have done so little for their people.
Tunisian President Ben Ali was irked because he felt that the Tunisian reform policy options, including an emphasis on "settlement of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict through peaceful means," were not being taken seriously by the summit. (Despite an authoritarian political system, the Tunisians have put reform into practice and believe there can be no overall panacea, that each country must build upon its own social reality.) The Saudis, backed by Egypt and Syria, had planned to come with a reportedly comprehensive plan to overhaul the dysfunctional Arab League as well.
The U.S. administration has been regaling the area with its "one-size-fits-all" plan for a reform of the entire Middle East, an exercise in profound unreality that was supposed to be put into place at the summit of the G8 countries in June. But it enraged everyone in the Arab world so much that it only served to freeze things in place, if not actually turn the clock back.
More important than any of this, however, is the fact that Arab intellectuals, most of them Western-educated and tending to be pro-American except for the issue of Israel, have continued over the last three years to carry out and define the impressive Arab Development Report issued under their names by the United Nations three years ago.
That report, which unsparingly outlines the need for everything from constitutional reform to women's rights, from political democratization to economic freedom, from a free press to the abolishing of all of the emergency laws and special courts upon which many Arab rulers depend, has become the basis for all the talk of change and reform in the area. Many of its originators and signers came together early in March in the Great Library of Alexandria in Egypt to discuss their topic, reform.
You can feel it in the air in the Arab world, even though you cannot palpably feel it everywhere. In Egypt, opposition parties and civil society organizations have founded committees to challenge the government for constitutional and political reform. The Muslim Brotherhood, the granddaddy of all Islamic movements in the world, is making apparently serious demands for reform in Egypt. I recently attended a small dinner for an importantly placed prince from one of the Persian Gulf monarchies, who quite vigorously challenged his Arab brethren at the table to forget their old grievances and, if they want to remain obsessed about Palestine, at least offer a serious alternate program to deal with it.
Yes, the war in Iraq did have something to do with waking up the region. But it also has everything to do with damping down the genuine, grass-roots cries and need for change.
As we saw both in Alexandria and Tunis, once these cries are faced with a Sheikh Ahmed Yassin being assassinated in Gaza, and once they are up against an American policy that demands they all change at once (the Saudis, for instance, would have to change their entire religious system to have women's rights, which is not going to be done overnight), the demands for reform are overtaken by old fears and politics. At the same time, the Arab intellectuals see, if the American people do not, that despite the rhetoric, the U.S. is not really "getting out of Iraq" after a "turnover" of the government there to whatever Iraqis on June 30. We are going to keep thousands of troops, an embassy of 4,000 with possibly a neocon viceroy such as Paul Wolfowitz, and a "status of forces" agreement that will make the American military effectively the arbiter of Iraq's future.
So there you have it: opportunity frozen by reality. For that budding opportunity to bloom, some realities in the equation will need to be changed. But the people who could change that equation, in this administration of course, never studied geopolitical algebra.
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