Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Arab Awakening Embarrasses The World

By Raghida Dergham from Vienna
This commentary was pubished in al-Hayat on 10/06/2011 

Relations among the five permanent members of the Security Council will not deteriorate into confrontations risking bilateral or regional interests over their disagreement regarding the extent of the support that must be extended to the change currently taking place across the Arab region. However, the Arab awakening, which has succeeded in imposing itself on the agenda of many countries, has led the diplomatic discourse towards ‘embarrassment’, and has taken the equation out of the cycle of the often constrained ‘consensus’, behind which major countries such as China, Russia and other smaller nations in the Security council have hid behind, nations like Lebanon - the only Arab member of the Council- and several African countries.

Meanwhile, the U.S. administration has curtailed itself by way of its fear of repeating the Libyan model through a military intervention by NATO. As a result, the U.S. administration became a de facto partner of Russia, which in turn invokes this – that the Libyan model must not be repeated- as a slogan. Hence, the U.S. administration, despite its support for the text of the European draft resolution condemning Syria, became embarrassed as a result of its lack of enthusiasm, on par with that of Europe, for a strategy that would pursue the embarrassment of Russia, China and the African nations in the Security Council. The U.S. administration is also worried that Damascus may take this as encouragement for the regime to believe that it enjoys American protection, and not just Russian-Chinese protection in the Security Council.

Europe, for its part, has decided to express resentment and object to what is transpiring in Syria, even over the failure to adopt a resolution at the Security Council because of a Russian or Chinese veto. Europe has opted not to succumb to the ‘consensus’ approach, which has often hindered the Security Council whenever it sought to issue a statement that would require all 15 members to approve it. This is while passing a resolution requires a majority of 9 votes, provided that no permanent member of the Council vetoes it. Nevertheless, Europe is not above being held to account with respect to its relations with the Arab uprising, merely because it is engaged in a leading role in the Security Council. The Global Agenda Council for Europe and Central Asia, a subordinate body of the World Economic Forum which convened in Vienna this week, adopted a notable position in its communiqué, by stressing that the European response to the Arab Spring has lacked ambition, imagination and generosity. The deeds and actions of European leaders, according to the Council, focused too much on stopping the flux of immigrants, and too little on the historic opportunity to reorganize Europe's relationship with its neighbors to the south.

The Council’s communiqué also said that economic challenges – together with demographic trends, and rising inequality, unemployment and corruption- may well threaten the advent of the Arab spring. [The Council stated that] Europe must do everything in its power to avoid this scenario. The Council also stated that the movements for dignity that emerged in the Arab word did not call for joining the West, as much as they were an attempt to liberate the citizens in these countries from within. According to the Council, Europe must therefore find symbolic means and a comprehensive long-term political and economic vision for the nature of Europe's relations with its southern neighbors.

The discussions at Vienna’s Economic Forum for Europe and Central Asia placed European responsibility at the forefront by demanding that the continent rise to the challenges brought about by the Arab spring. However, this did not exonerate the Arabs from their historic responsibility, whether at the level of businessmen, who in their majority were partners of the regimes being toppled, or at the level of regional bodies such as the Arab League and the GCC.

There aren’t an adequate number of think tanks or strategic research institutes in the Arab world that would define what options are available ahead. For this reason, the process of establishing a new regional order appears vague to many and worrisome for others. Of course, there are the factors of the youths, social media networks and popular determination to change, and these may well be more willing, ready and engaged in drafting a new regional order than the 'old guard' may realize. There also are countries which, at the opportune moment, rushed to read the features of change early on and decided to ally themselves with it against yesterday's partners, with Qatar at the forefront of these - having appeared, like the Barack Obama administration, as though it were the 'Che Guevara' of the Middle East.

However, there is a notable absence by the Arab League in its capacity as a necessary institution for testing various scenarios impacting the very core of the Arab future. There is an urgent need for the Arab League to immediately reinvent itself, but it isn’t doing so.

In turn, the GCC is in front of a historic opportunity that it must not miss. Otherwise, it will continuously be lagging behind the developments on the Arab scene, flummoxed, and without a vision or any stakes in the Arab spring. Many countries in the GCC still view the Arab spring with disdain or suspicion, even when it is in their interest to provide immediate support to both Tunisia and Egypt, in order to help their model succeed - no matter what reservations and criticism they may have against both. It is an opportunity to influence though investment, instead of refraining from this in anger, resentment or as retribution. That would be, as the expression goes, cutting one's nose to spite one's face.

The GCC countries have played an important role in Libya, prompting the Arab League to adopt outstanding stances. This made action on the Libyan issue in the Security Council swift and effective. The GCC countries also played a central role in the Yemeni issue, with an initiative that gave President Ali Abdullah Saleh an exit strategy whereby he would leave power without being prosecuted. And as regards the Syrian issue, and despite some prominent stances by GCC countries in closed sessions, there is no public position similar to the GCC's positions on Libya or Yemen; certainly not by Bahrain, at any rate, where the GCC countries came together and placed geographical considerations above all else.

The absence of a Gulf stance and the Arab League’s opting not to adopt a position on the developments in Syria, both contribute to giving an excuse to Russia, China and the African nations in the Security Council. These countries pointed their fingers at the Arabs as a first line of defense. And some have publicly stated: Let the Arabs come to us with positions on Syria, and request our support, and you shall see what we will do. However, this view does not exonerate these countries, despite of the strong Arab alibi.

In truth, what prompted China to engage the Libyan opposition was not the Arab recognition of the Libyan Transitional National Council (TNC). Instead, it is the fact that the road map towards the expiration of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's tyrannical regime is plain and obvious, and so is the success of NATO’s military support for the rebels, and the astute strategy pursued by the TNC, which includes in its ranks veteran experts on international policy. Thus, China was compelled to engage the opposition, and Russia was forced to abandon Gaddafi and dispatch a delegation to Benghazi. And what perhaps is speeding up the attempt to end the conflict in Libya, is the fact that Gaddafi himself buried all other alternatives to military settlement, in addition to his utter rejection of all formulas of transitioning power while being granted immunity from prosecution. Recently, Gaddafi appended to his threat to pursue the Libyan people 'alleyway by alleyway' a call to dissidents to 'repent'. Such stances have certainly contributed to reaffirming Russia and China’s ‘being compelled’ to reconsider their objections to the actions on Libya, especially with respect to NATO's role. However, what is noteworthy here is that Russia’s stances underwent a complete U-turn during the G8 summit in Deauville, where economic interests figured highly in the discussions, and not just political and strategic considerations.

Meanwhile, Yemen does not figure in the language of economic interests, but rather the opposite is true, as saving it from becoming a rogue state requires a massive infusion of funds in its direction. Yemen does not constitute a good investment in terms of oil, gas or even as a coastal stretch, as Libya does following the transitional phase. It is a good investment only in terms of preventing it from becoming a fertile ground for civil wars, and for al-Qaeda and similar extremist groups. Investing in Yemen is thus more like drawing out an insurance policy against the worst. And for geographical reasons, the GCC countries are more interested in Yemen than others. The fragmentation of Yemen and its transformation into a rogue state exploited by terrorism and extremism would directly impact the national security of certain countries in the GCC. However, this does not invalidate the critical importance attached by Washington to Yemen for sheer concern for and from the country, should it become a rogue state. As for Russia and China, they are both in the back seat when it comes to the Yemeni issue, until further notice.

There is a de facto consensus between the GCC countries and the five permanent members of the Security Council on the Yemeni question. There is also a near consensus among all these countries with respect to the strategy on Libya. This is in addition to the minimum level of understanding present among these countries regarding Bahrain, despite public criticisms of the latter’s government followed by praise for its measures for reform. However, when it comes to the Syrian question, there are clear differences, most notably between the efforts led by Europe and the Russian resistance in terms of referring the Syrian issue to the Security Council, and also against the U.S. administration’s subjugation to Russian dictates for fear of its veto or other ambiguous reasons and calculations.

The differences will not become confrontations that would endanger common interests. However, the approach adopted by Europe to embarrass reluctant sides is necessary so that the latter may not become comfortable with their obstinacy without accountability. Russia and China do not want the Arab spring to blow in their direction, and they are hiding behind Arab malingering and hesitancy and also American reluctance. However, the Arab scene is once again imposing itself on the international arena. Russia and China may soon see that their interests cannot be served by appearing as protectors of the regimes against their peoples that are calling for change, when the call for reform has failed.

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