Time for the Arabs to Get off the Fence
27 June 2016
By Eyad Abu Shakra
A few hours separated two events last week: the Arab League picked a new
secretary general, and its foreign ministers labelled Hezbollah of Lebanon a
There is nothing untoward about the appointment of Egypt's Ahmed Aboul-Gheit
as new secretary general of the Arab League, as the man is neither a novice
diplomat nor an accidental tourist in the political arena, but is rather a
veteran diplomat and politician whether as an ambassador or a foreign
minister. What is new, in fact, is that Mr Aboul-Gheit will find himself
forced to deal with a different Arab scene where there is no more room for
niceties, pleading and running away from real solutions. At present we may
have reached ''the era of getting off the fence'' and forgetting about running
away from challenges through empty talk.
Since the 'Arab Spring', that momentous event that Arabs everywhere continue
to disagree on how to define and evaluate, the comfort zone and room for
manoeuvres have shrunk drastically. At the moment, the Arabs are frankly
facing decision time and clear cut positions. Here we have to confess that we
have reached this point not by choice but rather as a result of pressing
internal and external issues that are impossible to temporarily adjourn or
Internally, there are the problematic issues of religious and national
identities which have become ever more acute after the 'Arab Spring' which
brought down regimes that monopolised power for four decades during which new
generations emerged against the background of diminishing resources, increased
expectations, and unrestricted interaction and communications.
Many Arab entities, within its 2011 borders, were running away from providing
convincing answers to questions about their legitimacy, borders, popular
representation and social cohesion. In fact, if some claim that the occupation
of Iraq in 2003 was the incendiary device that ignited the fire of Sunni –
Shi'i conflict, others may point out that the seeds of this conflict were sown
in 1979 when Ayatullah Khomeini of Iran decide to ''export his Islamic
Revolution, and in his own way ''guide'' the Muslims of the world to what he
peddled as the 'true Islam'!
The policy of ''exporting the Islamic Revolution'' in its unadulterated
sectarian form was bound to encounter a sectarian reaction based on a logical
counter argument: self defence. Indeed, the Khomeini onslaught, with its
Persian hard-core content, 'Islamist' and 'revolutionary' coating, and painted
by the slogans of 'Liberation of Palestine' and 'Death to America & Israel'
were soon confronted theologically, nationalistically, politically, and of
The Iran – Iraq War was a significant and costly round in what we see today as
an existential war between an Arab world that has understood Islam in an open
and uncomplicated 'generic' format and an extreme nationalist and theocratic
Iranian regime whose philosophy and discourse have been based on a melange of
complexes including haughtiness, vengefulness, and insistence on 'correcting
of the wrongs' of history and geography using as a weapon the same weapon the
Arabs had used before to conquer a non-Muslim Iran , i.e. Islam itself!
From the outset the Khomeini project rejected coexistence and sought hegemony.
And if Khomeini considered – in his own words – that he ''drank the cup of
poison'' by agreeing to the ceasefire with Iraq, his project of hegemony has
not died. It has not for two main reasons:
Arab mistakes. The first and foremost of which was Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.
Secondly, Iran's success in absorbing the shock of the aborted
war, and its re-launch of its penetrative offensive in a smart, silent and
more diligent manner instead of brutal direct confrontation.
Actually, one example of how Iran managed to learn from its past mistakes was
its refusal to be dragged into the Afghanistan quagmire when Washington was on
the side of Taliban who were then viciously fighting the Shi'i Hazara. It also
turned a blind eye in 1998 and let pass the murders of a number of Iranian
diplomats in Mazar-i-Sharif, in northern Afghanistan.
Since then the post-Khomeini Iran, led by self-proclaimed 'reformers' and
'moderates', knew how to benefit from the ever increasing Arab frustration,
and mushrooming of Sunni extremist 'Jihadists' spreading from Indonesia (the
Abu Bakar Ba'ashir group accused of the Bali attacks) in the east, to the USA,
the target of the September 11th outrage in the west. In such a climate the
political attitudes of several 'liberal' and 'progressive' western politicians
matured to bring about the current positions of the 'Democrat' Barack Obama,
'traditional Left-wing Labour' Jeremy Corbyn and 'ex-Communist' Federica
Mogherini, all of whom firmly believe that dialogue is possible – indeed,
necessary – with 'political Shi'ism' but never with 'Political Sunnism'.
Today this is the heavy tax the Arab world is paying; firstly because it is
the closest Muslim neighbour to Christian Europe, secondly because it is the
largest Muslim population worldwide, and thirdly because Sunnis make up around
75 % of its population.
The partitioning of the Sudan leading to the birth of the new state of South
Sudan in 2011 (the year of the 'Arab Spring'), and the de facto partitioning
of Iraq as the new Kurdish state slowly emerges in its northern regions as
preparations gather pace for a referendum whose result is never in doubt, both
confirm the fears that the Middle East is approaching new realities that will
change the maps and borders of 1920.
The fragility of the 'national unity' as laid exposed in many a country living
the spasms of the 'Arab Spring', combined with the dubious relationship
sharing the helm of the international community between a passive and
regressive US administration, a neo – Czarist Russian leadership, and an
aggressive Iranian regime now emboldened by American goodwill; and then added
to all the above is the emergence of ISIS, a sinister organization whose aim
is to enrage the world, provoke animosities, and increase the enemies of Islam
and Muslims. One would begin to see the serious challenges the Arab has to
We, the Arabs have always talked of 'brotherly relations' and 'one destiny',
but obviously some of us never really meant what we were saying. Well, now we
are facing realities drawn on the ground by blood and tears. The issue of
self-preservation is neither negotiable nor left to one's private assessments.
The situation in Libya is not natural and does not bode well, more so as its
potential dangers are threatening Libya's neighbours. Syria too, given the
apparent agreement between Washington, Moscow and Tehran, may be moving toward
'partition' under a diplomatic veil of 'federalism' after half of its
population has been uprooted and displaced, and around 600,000 people killed.
Sorry, Mr Aboul-Gheit, our new secretary general, I wish I could be more
Eyad Abu Shakra is the managing editor of Asharq Al-Awsat. He has been with
the newspaper since 1978.