WHEN Chadli Klibi took the reigns of the Arab League in 1979, he became a symbol of the hope that 21 Arab nations could learn to live as one. When he quit last September, as they squared off to fight over Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, that hope appeared doomed. Today the retired diplomat says that by giving Arab leaders the chance to rethink the idea of Arab unity from the bottom up, the Gulf war could prove a blessing in disguise.
``In the past, there's been a lot of grand rhetoric, but it has not translated into concrete terms,'' Mr. Klibi says. ``The crisis is going to traumatize us into the conviction that changes have to be made.''
A former minister in the Tunisian government of Habib Bourguiba, Klibi was elected to three terms as the secretary-general of the Arab League. He is the first non-Egyptian to hold the post, which has remained unfilled since his Sept. 3 resignation.
In his first interview since leaving the post, Klibi says the problem with the Arab League is that it was created to be like the United Nations. To be practical, he says, it must pattern itself after the European Community.
``The way we were organized, each state believed it was responsible for its own people, without trying to help others. Solidarity operated only at the level of language,'' Klibi says. ``The result is that 30 years of effort to lower trade barriers and cooperate on economic and social development became a dead letter.''
The problem was compounded as each nation pursued its security interests individually, ignoring the link between security and regional economic development, Klibi says.
``There's no security without development and vice versa.''
Unity out of division
Klibi insists he is not daunted by the fault line that divides the Arab world as a result of the Gulf crisis. European unity, after all, was forged in the aftermath of the two greatest wars in history.
``This period of turmoil is the very time policymakers and analysts must start thinking of the aftermath'' of the crisis, he says.
Just what the aftermath should be, says Klibi, is an Arab world that thinks regionally, not nationally.
``We don't need a regional UN,'' he explains. ``We've thought too long as individual states, without the sense of complementarity and solidarity that characterize the European Community.
``Now we have to rethink the very basis of the Arab League and substitute for individual states the idea of a community of people belonging to the same nation.''
EC as model
Emulating the European example may be easier said than done. One main obstacle will be the legacy of centuries of Ottoman and European colonialism, which ended half a century ago.
With short histories and artificially drawn boundaries, countries like Iraq and Jordan may feel too insecure about their own national identities to sacrifice even a part of the sovereignty needed to copy the EC experience.
The Gulf war is the latest of many crises that have tested Arab unity in the postwar era.
Egypt and Yemen warred in the 1960s. Algeria and Morocco nearly came to blows over the Polisario war in the former Spanish Sahara. Egypt was expelled from the Arab League in 1979 for signing a peace treaty with Israel.
But nothing has fractured Arab unity like the Gulf crisis. Iraq's invasion is the first time in modern history that one Arab state has swallowed another, producing a split down the middle of the Arab League.
``This is not the first major crisis, but this is much more intense than all previous ones,'' Klibi acknowledges.
Arab diplomats say the secretary-general was angered when Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak forced passage of a pro-Western resolution through an emergency Arab League summit in Cairo a week after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.
The resolution opened the door to Western intervention in Saudi Arabia and closed it to the possibility of an Arab solution to the Gulf crisis.
The Arab League was not intended to be ``an instrument to organize internal fratricidal conflict,'' Klibi said when asked to comment on the reasons for his resignation.
``A lot of damage has been done,'' he adds. ``With no justification, the West hastened to intervene in an inter-Arab conflict without leaving chances for Arab efforts, without leaving the necessary time to try and find a solution. Western intervention has widened the conflict.''
``All Arab peoples believed we could solve this problem in other ways than through arms,'' Klibi adds.
The 12-to-9 vote in Cairo, the first nonunanimous vote on a major issue in Arab League history, left the organization deeply - some say irreparably - divided into pro- and anti-Iraq camps.
The political divisions are reflected in a geographical split. With Egypt now back in the Arab League, most of the League's operations have moved back to Cairo - its original headquarters - despite opposition from Arab nations aligned with Iraq. The speed of the transfer, which took place late last year, angered many Tunisian-based officials.
Asked to assess Saddam Hussein's place in history, Klibi described the Iraqi leader as ``a historical figure of even greater dimensions than [former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel] Nasser.''
``Like Nasser, he gave to the Arab community a fighting spirit,'' Klibi says. ``We don't need a fighting spirit in terms of war, but [in terms] of a determination to struggle.''
Such determination will be needed to establish Arab unity on a new basis after the Gulf war is over, Klibi adds.