An Egyptian dialogue in Beirut en route to Arab summit

Qatar’s role wanes in the Arab League summit as Egypt tries to recover its role.

al-monitor Egyptian interim President Adly Mansour (right) attends the opening of the 25th Arab League Summit in Bayan Palace, Kuwait, March 25, 2014.  Photo by REUTERS/Stephanie McGehee.

Topics covered

qatar, lebanon, leadership, gulf cooperation council, foreign policy, egypt, arab league

Mar 28, 2014

Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy passed by Beirut on his way to the Arab League summit in Kuwait. He visited political leaders and government officials, and then, when in Kuwait, many “shadow men.”

Lebanon is politically polarized on sectarian and confessional bases. The president is no longer the only person representing the state, or even his sect. Each sect has become many parties and groups. Lebanon has enough political and sectarian references to fill the seats of the UN General Assembly, especially since each of these references can be considered a representative of a state or several states.

Fahmy listened to the various positions, which are more like an assortment of attitudes than actual positions such as those expressed in Cairo these days. Fahmy noticed that the Lebanese have been wanting more from him than the positions he announced. And the Lebanese noticed that he had come as an adviser rather than an envoy with a plan that paved the way for a project to solve the Lebanese crisis, which might encapsulate the Arab problems as a whole and whose main title was: the war in and on Syria.

The Lebanese government has adopted a weak policy called dissociation. But Egypt after the two revolutions has dissociated itself from the negative official positions of its deposed President Mohammed Morsi, who had almost raised the slogans of the Syrian opposition and cut the last remaining formal ties with the Syrian regime. The post-Morsi Egypt kept its embassy open in Damascus (albeit without an ambassador) to ensure communication.

Fahmy’s visit to Beirut was a stop on his way to the Arab League summit in Kuwait. His answers to questions by Lebanese officials signaled that the issue that will dominate the summit is Qatar’s role, which two years ago dominated the summit but now has become a source of the first and perhaps most serious crisis faced by the Arab League.

The circumstances have changed. In fact, they have flipped upside-down. Instead of Qatar being the vehicle and the funder of quarrels and wars, able to control the Arab League’s decision and its role, it is now a source of crisis. It has been expelled from the Gulf Cooperation Council. It was chased and rejected from most joint Arab action. This development may relieve those at the summit, especially the host, Kuwait, but it doesn’t open the door to a radical change in the Arab position on the Syrian crisis; that is, if there is a unified position in the first place or a project for a unified position, taking into consideration the ruling powers in this summit. And it’s difficult to imagine that the summit will make critical decisions that will go in a different direction than in the past three years.

The phase of “Qatari hegemony” on the Arab League has ended, with all its scandals that have hit the image and role of the Arab League. Those scandals turned the Arab League in a body with a mission to simply forward Arab crises to the UN General Assembly or, even more dangerous, to the UN Security Council, or even NATO, as happened with the uprising in Libya against Col. Moammar Gadhafi.

The two “Hameds” have left the scene, but Qatar is still a knot in joint Arab action, especially after the worsening dispute with the GCC. That will adversely affect the work of the summit, unless ​​Egypt overcomes its acute problem with Qatar or takes advantage that this problem has become “Arab” to impose a reconsideration of Qatar’s role and of the disastrous results on the league and on the center of Arab decision-making in general when the small dominates the large.

From here, the Kuwait summit will be a turning point in joint Arab action, not only about Qatar’s position and its adventures, but in attempting to crystallize a rational position that is acceptable in the face of serious developments affecting all the region and risking to unleash a series of sectarian civil wars in the Levant at first, but that could then spread west. The Libyan fire will not remain confined to the boundaries of this “state” that was abolished by its leader, but is expected to extend to the east, west, and south. And there are enough weapons for that.

But let’s go back to the political-sectarian political folklore that Fahmy heard in Lebanon. Fahmy, who lived most of his professional life outside the Arab world, didn’t need to provide his Lebanese hosts with a detailed explanation of Egypt’s circumstances during this transition as a prelude to announce that his country cannot afford to give much, nor were the leaders in Lebanon, officials and party members, awaiting an Egyptian initiative that would gather them and united them.

He and they know that the hour of Egypt recovering its leadership role in the region has not yet arrived. It is necessary that Egypt announce and that everyone realize that Egypt is on its way back to itself and to its unifying role, especially since it is free of the suspicion of religious extremism or sectarian bias and it is bigger than to be used to serve others’ projects.

Egypt is required to accomplish its special Arab project, based on its leadership position as a reference, which clears it of suspicion of having a sectarian bias. Egypt must take a nationalist unifying position that cuts across the interests of sects and religions. Egyptians are known for their Sufi faith, which transcends sects and religions, and Egypt is much bigger than to sink into intolerance.

Fahmy clearly emphasized that Egypt should be back to play its role in the Arab world. It was interesting when he said that the Egyptian president insisted that Fahmy go to Beirut and hear from the various Lebanese leaders about the aspects of the conflict, because those aspects don’t resonate in Egypt, which makes up a quarter of the Arab world's population.

“I will not promise anything that I cannot accomplish,” he said. “Egypt’s position about an American military intervention is clear. I went to Moscow twice in six months and met their leaders. I have not yet gone to Washington, and I am not replacing America with Russia. Despite all the pressure, Egypt’s options must remain manifold. In Iran, there is a lively public opinion. The Syrian situation is extremely complex, but it must be dealt with. The non-Syrian players outnumber the Syrian players. The differences between Saudi Arabia and Iran are political, and in politics, there are always solutions. But anyone who turns a political dispute into a history of sectarian wars intends to use the differences and solidify them for his benefit at the expense of the parties to the conflict.”

Fahmy concluded by saying: “We don’t have the luxury to wait. We may not talk about Arabism all the time but Arabism is our identity and one of the pillars of Egyptian national security. And anyone who wants to kidnap my identity and make me sectarian is threatening Egyptian national security.”

So Egypt will play its Arab role. It is quietly working to restore this role, as it seeks investments to revive its economy. Is this equation possible? Will the party making investments seek to make profits, which have no identity, at the expense of its Arab identity?

That is the question. It's one of the questions at this difficult stage, mainly in Egypt, but also all over the world.

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More from  Talal Salman