Doha, Qatar, where I am early this week, does not seem to be the new political vanguard and locomotive of the Arab world of which many international press reports speak. This view of the emirate comes on the heels of the prominent role played by Qatari Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani in the Arab League’s decision last weekend to suspend Syria and pressure its regime to stop using military force against civilian protesters.
The idea that Qatar is making its move now to assert a leadership role in the Arab world strikes me as exaggerated. The real story at hand is about the revival of Arab sovereignty. This has been expressed obliquely through the slow steps the Arab League is taking to pull back from the brink of irrelevance and play a meaningful political role that responds to the sentiments and values of the Arab people, whose sovereign will should and can shape state policies.
The Arab League has long been a cross between the forces of fiction and futility, a largely meaningless organization that has enjoyed no respect in the Arab arena it is supposed to represent. The reason for this is that the league is, as its official name indicates, a “League of Arab States.” Arab statehood for its part has been simultaneously one of the great frailties and cruelties of the modern world – for the most part offering citizens less than the minimal standards that a successful state is supposed to provide: security, identity, representation, equal opportunity, rights or quality services. A league of dysfunctional states is a monument to immobility and irrelevance, which the Arab League has been for many decades.
This is why it has been so surprising to see the Arab League make uncharacteristically decisive decisions this year on Libya and Syria, offering solace and protection to citizens challenging the authoritarian rule of their long-serving regimes. The decision on Libya was half-hearted and without unanimity, and was soft-pedaled immediately afterward by Amr Moussa, the then-secretary general.
The decision on Syria this weekend was strikingly different, with 18 of 22 Arab states voting for the Syrian suspension, and the Arab League also taking initiatives that are truly historic: speaking with a delegation from the Syrian opposition and planning on calling on Arab organizations to provide assistance and protection to dissident Syrians – with the option of asking the United Nations and international bodies for further assistance if needed. If you look far enough ahead in the distance, you can see the outlines of indictments at the International Criminal Court rearing their head.
The Arab League did not only make a historic decision to stop the bloodshed inside an Arab country; it set in motion a political process that directly challenges the policies and authority – and perhaps even the legitimacy and incumbency – of the Assad regime. By engaging with Syrian opposition groups to plan a transition from the current conditions, it firmed up that which the Libya decision had only touched upon gingerly: It is now permissible for Arab states to meddle in the internal affairs of other Arab states, when there is a clear moral or political reason to do so that reflects the sentiments of a majority of Arab public opinion.
It is fascinating to contrast how the Arab League has moved to stop the killings in Syria, with the total inability of the Arab world to address the bombings and assassinations in Lebanon not so long ago. This was especially the case in 2005, when Rafik Hariri and many others were assassinated and their killings were only investigated by an international team established by the Security Council of the United Nations. Neither the Lebanese state nor Arab states could do anything at the time in the face of sustained murder and criminality.
Today, the Arab world is moving in a new direction. We may be witnessing the first tangible impact of the Arab uprisings, citizen revolts and revolutions on those Arab elites that still control most governments in the region. Arab regimes may be starting to pay attention to the sentiments and values of their people, who reject the killing of civilians that has taken place in Syria since March.
The other fascinating new development we see before our eyes is the continued rebirth and reassertion of Arab sovereignty, will and influence within the Arab world, after decades during which the incompetent and politically derelict Arab states largely surrendered their regional security and ideological functions to foreign powers.
The Arab League is now making decisions whose consequences are ricocheting around the region. Consequently, Israel, Iran, Turkey and the U.S. are responding to Arab initiatives, rather than ordering the Arabs around, as they had for decades. The Arab Awakening continues.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR.