CAIRO – The media crunched in the courtyard of the Arab League headquarters in Cairo on Sunday were desperate to know something, anything, on where the leaders of the Middle East stood, but Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Saud al Faisal had other things on his mind. He was going out for lunch. Foie gras maybe? The other foreign ministers of the 22 members of the Arab League stuck to their kebabs inside the building.

Later, the Kuwaitis also went out – not for foie gras but for “consultations.” The wait was tense: everybody knew, for instance, that Kuwait, converted into an American armed camp, could not possibly agree with Iraq on the current standoff. Only at 10.30 in the evening was a declaration issued. And it was deeply disappointing.

There’s something unreal about the Arab League. The extraordinary meeting of foreign ministers was supposed to reinforce the Beirut declaration of March 2002, according to which an attack on an Arab country is considered an attack on all 22 members of the Arab League. Indeed, Arab states this time sort of agreed “that they will not accept, cooperate with, deal with, rally to or facilitate a strike on Iraq,” in the words of Arab League secretary general Amr Mussa. But they could not even agree on a date for a summit of heads of state to hammer out a solid message to Washington. No wonder: at least three members of the league – Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar – totally contradict the message enunciated by Mussa. The secretary general tried to put on his bravest face: “A summit will happen.” Maybe after a war on Iraq?

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has lobbied non-stop to convene a summit in Sharm-al-Sheikh. According to Egyptian officials, 15 of the 22 Arab League members have already agreed. Even Kuwait, through Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah al-Jabar al-Sabah, has confirmed that it will attend the summit. A date was floated: February 22. Then another: February 27. But the question remains: a summit for what? The best that the Arabs can hope for at this stage is to attach their camels to the European peace caravan led by France and Germany plus Russia at the UN Security Council.

And that’s exactly what appears to be happening. One day before the also-extraordinary European Union summit in Brussels, Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou – whose country holds the current presidency of the EU – and European external relations commissioner Chris Patten were also present at the Cairo meeting. Papandreou said that he talked one-on-one to Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri and advised Baghdad to comply with each and every UN disarmament term, the only way to avoid a US-led war: the position was set in stone the day after at the EU summit in Brussels. Mubarak was due in Germany on Tuesday on a state visit, and will meet French President Jacques Chirac in Paris on Thursday, on the margins of a Franco-African summit. Mubarak at least must be given the credit of trying to maneuver to find a unified Arab position. But like the 2 million hajjis recently in Mecca dressed in white and praying as one, the appearances of uniformity belie the differences.

There’s a lot of wishful thinking all over the Arab world – as if people are fatalistically waiting for a divine intervention from Allah himself. In practical terms, this would happen in the form of a package to be formulated at the still-tentative Arab summit. The Egyptian-Saudi plan is to urge Saddam Hussein to fully comply with anything – for the sake of the long-suffering Iraqi population; or step down, leave Iraq along with his family and the leaders of the Ba’ath Party, and exile himself in any Arab country under the protection of the Arab League.

Arab disunity among their unelected leaders is mirrored by Arab silence in the streets. Well over 10 million people, mostly marching in the streets of Europe this weekend carrying colorful, good-humored banners and quoting Hans Blix verbatim, have de facto vetoed the war. This is a thunderous political development – comparable to the European popular revolutions of 1848 and the Eastern European peaceful revolutions of 1989. The numbers are particularly staggering in three countries whose governments are staunch supporters of the Bush administration: 3 million people marching in Spain (including 1.3 million in Barcelona alone); almost 3 million people in Rome; and 1.5 million in London (these are the real figures, not the “police estimates” quoted by the mainstream media).

Meanwhile, what were the Arabs doing? The Arabs are about to witness nothing less than the invasion of the eastern flank of the Arab nation. Only Arabs can fully understand what this invasion really means – something that US Secretary of State Colin Powell himself finally admitted last week on the record: the US wants to change the whole map of the Middle East, which was drawn by the West (Britain and France) at the end of the Ottoman empire. Arabs can scream in private, but they cannot shout in public. In Cairo, for example, they were afraid, very much afraid, like the concierge of a five-star hotel surreptitiously mimicking the gesture of a man handcuffed. On Saturday morning, government officials “had no idea” where the protest would take place. Less than 600 people eventually showed up, surrounded by no less than 3,000 security police. Even in Tel Aviv, 2,000 people protested against the war.

Mubarak, the Saud family, King Abdullah in Jordan, they may all agree with the anger and the fatalistic feeling of impotence of their own populations, but still they don’t allow people to express it. Tyrannies anywhere assume that to prevent the expression of popular will is to prevent the will from existing. There were indeed thousands protesting in Baghdad, and 200,000 in Damascus, but these were in support of the respective regimes. They only reflect the Ba’ath party’s ability – in Iraq and in Syria – to organize or intimidate its citizens. The backwardness of Arab regimes even makes one feel a certain sympathy for the American dream – but not the methods – of bringing democracy to the Middle East. The problem is, democracy cannot be imposed by bombing and territorial invasion: Arabs themselves will have to learn from scratch – and this will certainly take a political and social earthquake, as in Iran in 1979.

What are most current Arab leaders good for, apart from providing a good life for themselves and their cronies? America wants to bring them down – at least the ones it doesn’t yet keep on a leash. Al-Qaeda also wants to bring them down – for different reasons, and in a completely different register. In his latest audiotape, Osama bin Laden says, “The recent deployment of forces for an attack on Iraq is only a link in the chain of continuing attacks on the countries of this region, including Egypt, Syria, Iran and Sudan. However, their real intention is to conquer and divide the land of the two holy sanctuaries [Saudi Arabia], as they have long realized the strategic value of this target, ever since this objective was passed on from Britain to the United States 60 years ago …” Any Arab would agree with that, and many a reputable Western think tank as well. Asia Times Online has reported that plans are being made at the Foreign Office in London for a partition of Arabia: the Arabs keep the holy places, the West keeps the oil. (Listening to Europe , Feb 1)

In the same audiotape, bin Laden then examines the proliferation of unrepresentative Hamid Karzai-style clones (as in Afghanistan) as the great drama of the Arab world: “What is the difference between Karzai the non-Arab and Karzai the Arab? Who implanted and established the rulers of the Arabian Gulf? They are none other than the crusaders, who appointed the Karzai of Kabul, established the Karzai of Pakistan, and implanted the Karzai of Kuwait and the Karzai of Bahrain and the Karzai of Qatar and others. Who appointed the Karzai of Riyadh? … they were none other than the crusaders, and they are continuing to enslave us to this very day.”

Kanan Makiya, an Iraqi intellectual exiled in the US, advances an explanation for Arab inertia: since the end of World War II, Arabs increasingly view themselves as eternal victims “condemned to pursue a combat-like Sisyphus against absolute or satanic injustice.” He contends that this inferiority complex is found in different degrees among all the peoples in the Middle East: Palestinians, Kurds, Armenians, Chaldeans, Oriental Christians, Turkmen – Shi’ite and Sunni. Makiya says that especially after the unexpected Israeli victory in 1967, “this inferiority complex became the engine of politics and culture; it was the basis on which regimes like Saddam’s in Iraq and Hafez Assad’s in Syria were built. Another factor was that deadly anti-Americanism changed hands from Arab secular nationalists to religious fanatics who used to be marginalized.”

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al Faisal has told the BBC that an American attack without a UN resolution would be perceived in the Arab world as “an aggression.” Arab leaders contemplate the scenario with desperation – because they know in the current fundamentalist American administration mode (“if you’re not with us, you’re with the terrorists”), the regimes which are not America’s vassals yet are condemned to extinction. From America’s point of view, the Roman “divide and rule” maxim as applied to the Arab world has been a resounding success. For Arab leaders, there’s nothing left but the great Arab face-saving theater. It may not be enough to prevent a massive political and social earthquake in the not too distant future.

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