The Magazine

Things Fall Apart . . .

And the Arab League summit isn't held.

Apr 12, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 30 • By MARC GINSBERG
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THE ARAB LEAGUE summit scheduled to begin in Tunisia on March 27 abruptly collapsed in disarray. Just as most of the league's 22 leaders--including a delegation from the Governing Council of Iraq--were preparing to head for Tunis, Tunisian president Zine el-Abidine ben Ali pulled the plug. The summit, its agenda ripe with controversy, would have unfolded against a backdrop of Arab emotions inflamed by Israel's assassination of Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the escalating uncertainties of Iraq's future, and pressure from Washington to democratize. Nevertheless, when the red carpet was unexpectedly rolled up, it sent shock waves throughout the Arab world.

Recriminations have been flying fast and furious. President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt publicly accused the Tunisians of acting in bad faith. The Tunisians blamed the Egyptians and the Saudis. Arab television and newspapers are having a field day unloading on the region's leaders for the fiasco. Meanwhile, Arab foreign ministers are scurrying around Middle East capitals trying to pick up the pieces and get the meeting rescheduled.

Ordinarily, the implosion of an Arab League summit would raise few eyebrows in Washington. Since the organization's founding in 1945, these affairs have tended to showcase Arab disunity. From the Khartoum Summit that issued the infamous, and toothless, three "no's" after the 1967 Middle East war (no negotiation, no recognition, no compromise) to the Beirut summit that endorsed a stillborn Arab-Israeli peace plan two years ago, league extravaganzas have been short on action and long on grandiosity. Ironically, this record has only contributed to the Arab masses' despairing sense that their leaders have little sway over regional events.

But the Tunis summit was important to the Bush administration and to a growing cadre of courageous Arab democrats and dissidents: For the first time in its 69-year history, the Arab League was actually planning to debate real democratic reform.

Even getting the issue onto the agenda of a meeting that fell through should be viewed as a victory of sorts for the United States. Until the terror attacks of September 11, the United States showed little interest in Arab democracy, preferring to work with Arab autocrats. But the roots of Islamic radicalism, as Americans have come to understand, lie in the stagnation of Arab economies and the failure of Arab regimes to reform their societies and permit more freedom. As President Bush said in his landmark November 6, 2003, speech commemorating the 20th anniversary of the National Endowment for Democracy, Arab rulers "should ask themselves whether they will be remembered for resisting reform, or for leading it." In that speech, Bush committed the United States to a new "forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East."

Just weeks before the planned summit, however, the London-based Arab daily Al Hayat published a bootlegged copy of the Bush administration's new "Greater Middle East Initiative," the strategy that was supposed to be unveiled in June at the Group of 8 Industrialized States meeting in Georgia. Its premature publication set off predictable criticism from Arab autocrats, who denounced it as a Washington-dictated "one size fits all" program. The loudest protests came from Washington's two principal allies, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, nations where democracy and reform are in very short supply.

With the initiative already under attack and off the summit's agenda, U.S. officials were resigned to settle for half a loaf, hoping that the summit would embrace a call for democratic change that, however tepid, might push the region toward greater freedom. It is too early to tell how much Arab democratization was set back by the summit's cancellation. But judging by the jockeying that took place, it was not a great day for Arab democrats.

From the moment Arab foreign ministers arrived in Tunis for their presummit preparatory meetings, things began to spin out of control. The ministers could not agree on a timetable or agenda. The bickering over how to address democratization divided countries into two camps. One, led by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Syria--the three most important Arab League states--resisted a broad reform agenda. The other, led by Morocco, Jordan, Tunisia, and several similarly reform-minded Persian Gulf states, asserted that the threat of Islamic terror, which targets Arab as well as Western regimes, demanded a concrete reform agenda, whether instigated by Washington or not.