A Year After War, Unity Eludes Arabs

ONE year after bombs began falling on Baghdad, the Gulf war has left Arab nations humiliated by that crushing display of Western military might, profoundly divided among themselves, and searching vainly for a new regional order to restore their voice in world affairs.

That is the view of Arab and Western diplomats, officials, and intellectuals on both sides of the Gulf crisis that destroyed the old Arab system without sowing the seeds of its replacement.

Even with Saddam Hussein still in power in Iraq, Iranian leaders increasingly active in their search for influence in the Middle East, and governments from Algeria to Jordan under pressure from Islamic fundamentalists, there are no signs of a concerted effort by Arab leaders to ponder how their region should seek stability and security in the emerging new world.

Still reeling from the Gulf war, they have been unable even to convene an Arab summit to discuss issues.

"There is a sense of defeat among all major trends in Arab politics," says Mohammed el-Sayed Said, an analyst at the prestigious Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. "It looks like we are in for a period of extreme futility with a high level of disillusion and disorientation."

From the Arab perspective the only positive outcome of the war, besides Iraq's expulsion from Kuwait, has been the launching of a peace process involving Israel and her neighbors. The US diplomatic drive to stage these talks was widely seen as the inducement Washington offered Arab countries to join the anti-Iraq coalition.

Now "the US is morally committed to give some concessions to its Arab allies," says Assad Abdul Rahman, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization's Central Council. "Nothing short of territorial compromise on the question of Palestine will justify the US Arab allies' claim that their position in the Gulf war was worthwhile."

For Tahseen Bashir, a former Egyptian ambassador to the United Nations, the peace talks "offer the Arab world a psychological safety net. By containing the conflict [with Israel] in some form of negotiation, [US Secretary of State James Baker III] helped the Arab system not to break up even further."

But the price has been high, with the negotiations framed almost exactly as Israel had wanted, and disunity is widely blamed for Arab failure to secure an international conference with United Nations participation.

After the Gulf crisis blew away any semblance of the old Arab order, the new alignments that developed around and against Iraq were expected to take its place. "But there was a tendency to overestimate the permanency of some changes that were only battlefield conversions," a Western diplomat says.

On the one hand, Jordan and the Palestinians, sympathetic to Iraq during the war, have scrambled onto the US-led peace train; while on the other, the planned grouping of the Gulf states with Egypt and Syria has faltered.

"The rapidity with which the Gulf countries returned to their idea of comfortable isolation was surprising," the Western diplomat says, and their refusal to invite Egypt and Syrian troops to ensure Gulf security in return for financial aid - a deal enshrined in the Damascus Declaration they all signed last March - has angered Cairo and Damascus.

"The Gulf rulers are still nursing their vendetta against Iraq, not knowing what to do but relying heavily on the West, which makes the Arab system a shambles," Mr. Bashir says.

This attitude has exacerbated resentment against the Gulf states among other Arab countries, and "the question raised by Saddam, what about the gap between rich and poor Arab nations, is being raised by the people," says Lutfi el-Khouly, an editorial writer for the Egyptian establishment Al-Ahram newspaper.

Some analysts still expect alignments in the Arab world to fall into the traditional pattern of pro-Western governments, such as Egypt and the Gulf countries on the one hand; and more radical countries, such as Iraq, Sudan, and perhaps Algeria on the other. But there are growing worries that the Gulf war has atomized the region.

Last year's massive intervention in the Gulf has led to "centripetal forces within the Arab world becoming much weaker vis-a-vis the pull of external forces" says Egyptian leftist writer Mohammed Sid Ahmed.

For one Egyptian official, "the injury is so deep in the body politic of the Arab world that it will need more time to heal, and there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein's disappearance is an essential element for Arab unity."

Arab League Secretary General Ahmed Esmat Abdel-Meguid also believes in the healing properties of time, but his organization, which might have been expected to lead the way in reconciling its members, has made no bold initiatives to do so. (Interview, Page 3.)

Nor has Egypt, traditionally a leader in Arab affairs, made an effort to map out a new direction. It is deterred, the Western diplomat suggests, because "a number of the problems that afflict the Arab world are not soluble with rhetoric or leadership, they need resources, often money. And Egypt has very little of that."

Beneath the failure of Arab governments to structure new alliances, many thinkers in the region detect a deeper malaise among the general Arab public, fostered by the Arab system's failure to prevent the invasion of Kuwait, negotiate an end to it, or find a way forward from the war.

"There is a general disgust with Arab politics all over the region," worries Sayed Said. "Everyone wants to de-link from them, saying it is too difficult, too disparate."

The signals of strong Arab frustration, agrees Sid Ahmed, are clear. He points to the wide support Saddam Hussein enjoyed just for standing up to the West, the welcome with which much of the Arab world greeted the failed Soviet coup last August, and the rise of Islamic fundamentalist forces in Algeria and elsewhere.

Recalling the emergence of fundamentalism in the Middle East in the wake of the disastrous 1967 Six-Day War the Arabs fought against Israel, he predicts that the movement will grow. "Historically, it has been hyperactive when there has been a strong projection of Western ideas and power in the region," as now, he says.

But in the face of this unprecedented lack of Arab unity and weakening faith in political solutions, no individual leader or country has emerged.

Saudi Arabia shows no sign of interest in a pan-Arab role. Iraq, for the time being, has been destroyed, and Saddam Hussein is widely blamed for the catastrophe of the war.

In Syria, President Hafez al-Assad confronts economic woes and has lost regional credibility by allying himself with the US. In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak has none of the charisma of a Gamal Abdel Nasser.

"The Middle East is leaderless," says a Western diplomat. "And since no one is able now to speak with authority in the region, national interests reign supreme."

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