Egypt to press summit for Arab force

Egypt to press summit for Arab force

The Arab summit is the first such major leaders’ gathering in Egypt since El-Sisi took office and Cairo is using it to push for a joint Arab force, writes Salah Nasrawi

Arab countries should forge closer military and security ties, including a security task force to fight terrorism, according to an Egyptian proposal to be discussed at an Arab leadership summit in Sharm El-Sheikh this weekend.

The summit comes amid unprecedented turbulence in the region since the Arab League was founded seventy years ago this month to safeguard members’ independence, national integrity and security.

Turmoil has spread across the Arab world since a series of popular uprisings in 2011 and many Arab countries now face heightened terror threats which have underlined the need for closer regional cooperation to stop the menace.

Ahead of the Summit, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi told the Wall Street Journal that his proposal for a counterterrorism force will be the centerpiece of the summit. He warned that the new force is needed “to preserve what is left” of the stable Arab world.

El-Sisi has become increasingly vocal about the need for Arab military cooperation after jihadists in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and in neighbouring Libya declared their allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) terror group, which has seized large swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria.

El-Sisi has clearly stated the goals behind the proposal to form a unified force to fight terrorism in the region. Still no firm details on the proposed alliance, apparently to give other Arab governments a chance to discuss the plan.

The proposal, however, has been subject to a good deal of debate in Arab political circles, including the Arab League. One idea which has been under discussion is the “reactivation” of the League’s Arab Defence and Economic Pact to confront jihadist terrorism and other security threats.

 Under the 1950 agreement member states consider “any attack against one of them as an attack on all” and allows them to use “all steps available, including the use of armed force, to repel the aggression and restore security and peace.”

Ideas to create a joint force have been floated before, but a pan-Arab military alliance has always proved difficult to implement as security policies remain largely a national issue for Arab governments.

The last time Arab Leaders discussed such an idea was at an Arab summit in Riyadh in 2007 when Egypt proposed “a comprehensive concept for pan-Arab security.” The proposal was aimed at creating a “mechanism” to resolve regional conflicts “without foreign intervention.”

The proposal never came close to enjoying the support of a majority of the Arab countries due in part to bickering over competition, sovereignty and national security and defence strategies.

This time it is not expected to be much different even though the hope for closer security cooperation is crucial in confronting the terrorism challenge. Those who oppose the collective counterterrorism project offer several arguments.

Arab League Secretary-General Nabil El-Araby has downplayed the idea of reactivating the Arab Defense and Economic Pact. Instead, he suggested “a comprehensive” counterterrorism approach that includes “renewal of the religious discourse” and combating religious extremism in the media.

“The defense pact was signed in 1950 with perceptions which are different from the ones prevailing today. It was meant (to help) Arab countries which face a threat by another state, ostensibly Israel,” El-Araby was quoted as saying in an interview with the Middle East News Agency.

“Now the perceptions about wars and armies have changed. What is important today is that there is a unanimous resolution by the Arab states to confront terrorism,” he said.

Other key disagreements have emerged. Saudi Arabia, for example, is reportedly in favor of a broader defense alliance which includes non-Arab Sunni countries, such as Pakistan and Turkey to contain Iran and its regional Shia allies.

These views underscore sharp differences between those in the Arab governments who want the new security strategy to focus on fighting terrorism and others who give priority to efforts to confront Iran and its Shia allies.

These differences are expected to reflect on the leaders’ discussions on the conflicts in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen where they are required to take unified stands on how to confront turmoil in these countries which threatens to spiral into their neighbours.

While Iraq, Syria and Yemen remain wracked by sectarian divisions and political uncertainty, surge of violence and a brutal power struggle in Libya raise the specter of another civil war in the Arab world.

Yet, differences on priorities between the Arab governments are making a unified Arab stand on resolving these conflicts a mission impossible.

One major difference is over Syria’s bloody conflict. While several Arab countries, including Egypt, support a diplomatic solution for the four year old war in Syria, which implicitly means that the negotiations should involve President Bashar Al–Assad, Saudi Arabia leads the camp which pursues a course in which Al-Assad has to step aside, even by force if necessary.

Similarly, the Arab leaders are unlikely to offer tangible solutions to chaos in Iraq and Yemen where the conflicts are increasingly turning into to sectarian wars with wide ranging consequences for the region.

In Libya, Arab countries in North Africa have yet to come to agreement on how to deal effectively with the terrorist groups who have taken advantage of the vacuum of central power and threaten regional stability.

With Iran and the world powers are believed to be close to an agreement on Tehran’s nuclear programme, Iran is expected to top the summit’s discussions.

Here again the summit may be overshadowed by members’ disputes over a potential deal with Iran with Saudi Arabia and some of its partners in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) expected to hold the toughest stance vis-a-vis Iran.

For the kingdom, ending fear of developing nuclear weapons is not going to be the end of the troubles with Iran. Saudi Arabia and other Arab Sunni governments remain concerned about a larger bargain that will allow Iran to increase its regional influence at their expense.

While a grand deal with Iran will have vast implications on the regional balance of power, options for the Arab countries to confronting Iran seem limited without risking further sectarian division in the region.

Leaders are also expected to ponder on the stalled Arab-Israeli peace process following this month’s re-election of the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who has disavowed the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during his elections campaign.

Efforts to convince Israel to accept an Arab peace initiative, which was endorsed by the Arab summit in 2001 and offers Israel recognition by all Arab League members in return for Israeli acceptance of a two-state solution, have been met with repeated Israeli rejection.

The Palestinian Authority is expected to seek support from the summit to its move to ask a new UN Security Council resolution endorsing Palestinian statehood. El-Araby, told Al-Ahram over the weekend that such a decision has a better chance of winning passage now that the Obama administration is conducting a “reassessment” of its Middle East peace policies.

Among the main topics at the summit’s agenda will be the overhauling the Arab League, including amending its founding document. El-Araby, has repeatedly blamed the League’s failure on its member states, which he accuses of solely making its decisions and forging its policies without much participation from the secretaries or the civil society associations.

One of the main reform suggestions by El-Araby is to amend the League’s charter which he has described as “unsuitable” to meet the challenges faced by the Arab world today.

A committee which was formed to suggest reforms has presented its report to El-Araby. Its conclusions which have been kept secret are expected to be reviewed first by the Arab foreign ministers who meet Thursday before they were submitted to the Arab summit.

Arab diplomats, however, told Al Ahram Weekly that recommendations to rewrite the League’s charter, which was pressed by El-Araby may be deferred for now for further deliberations.

Recommendations to activate the Arab Peace and Security Council which was established in 2007 to boost the League’s work in the prevention, management and resolution of disputes, may be adopted by the summit, the diplomats said.

Though this year’s summit coincides with the 70th anniversary of the Arab League no events have been planned for this important milestone in Arabs’ modern history. The lack of official celebrations probably reflects not only the grim mood in the Arab world but also the low expectations from the summit.

Also, it remains to be seen if any of the key heads of state and government will skip the summit aimed at forming a united front line in the war against terror and other security threats to the Arab world.

 While leaders of Algeria and Oman are expected to stay away for health reasons, chaos in several Arab countries may impact the level of their participation. Among the most notable absentees will be Al-Assad whose country’s membership in the League was suspended after the 2011 uprising.

This article appeared in Al Ahram Weekly on March 26, 2015

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