Arab Summits Remind Us of Our Frivolous Governance Systems

The dismal state of collective and individual Arab leadership is far more troubling today than it has been in recent decades, due to the deteriorating conditions across our region.

The sad spectacle of the truncated “summit” of Arab leaders in the Mauritanian capital Monday was even more embarrassing than usual for this recurring event. It highlights again the often-frivolous behavior of Arab leaderships, and the massive challenges they are failing to meet. The most troubling aspect of the event was its affirming again the capacity of Arab leaderships to ignore the actual, home-grown, causes of their countries’ problems, and instead to repeat clichés about fighting terrorism and seeking peace—two areas in which the Arab World has failed to make any headway.

The dismal state of collective and individual Arab leadership is far more troubling today than it has been in recent decades, due to the deteriorating conditions across our region. Arab leaders who care to do so have many serious options to address the real problems facing their societies—at least those Arab countries that are not at war at home and with neighbors, under international sanctions, actively struggling to avoid total disintegration, or becoming the world’s leading sources of refugees and terrorists.

The summit was destined for ignominy and irrelevance from the start when during the opening session Egyptian Prime Minister Sherif Ismail invoked his President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi’s call for “an Arab strategy of struggle against terrorism.”

Such calls totally lack credibility, because it should have become obvious by now, including to incumbent Arab officials, that during the past two generations the main reason for state fragmentation, sectarianism, tribalism, and now terror across much of the Arab World has been government mismanagement of state resources and national development, alongside corruption and sustained absence of democratic participation by citizens. Those are realities that Arab officials, including the ones who attend Arab summits, can repair, if they wish—but there seems to be no sign of a wish to do so.

If there is a genuine will among Arab societies—citizens and governments—to work collectively on issues of common concern, then Arab summits need to be radically reconfigured to achieve that sensible goal. The first step in that direction must be the capacity of Arab citizens to have some credible input into the decisions of their governments. Citizen participation in decision-making and holding accountable state institutions and the private sector alike remain grossly absent from the modern Arab World. The result is that major policy decisions in small and large Arab countries continue to be made in a whimsical and often impulsive manner, reflecting personal inclinations, emotions, self-aggrandizement, and self-interest, more than the studied collective well-being of the citizenry. This includes decision of war-and-peace related to places like Israel, Syria, Sudan, Yemen, and Lebanon, supporting insurrections within Arab states, and launching ambitious showcase “development” projects that mostly reflect the profit motives of crony capitalist circles close to the existing power structures.

Even the occasional sensible ideas, like those suggested by Saudi Arabia and Egypt to create regional forces to fight terrorism, usually remain unimplemented, in large part because they have not been securely anchored in the expressed will and capacity of Arab citizenries to work together to achieve these goals. This is due to a very large extent to the inability or unwillingness of Arab leaderships to recognize their own domestic, self-inflicted causes of their disequilibrium, vulnerability, turbulence, and insecurity.

These causes are big-sticker items like frivolous application of the rule-of-law, the slow collapse of the public education system across the Arab World, increasingly erratic access to clean water and sanitation, and security systems’ dominance of executive, judicial, and legislative authority, leaving ordinary citizens almost totally helpless in the face of the power of the state. These and other constraints eventually usually lead to one of two conditions—either states fragment and sometimes collapse (Yemen, Libya, Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Lebanon, Sudan) or result in authoritarian state control as demonstrated in Egypt today, with somewhere between 40,000 and 60,000 of its citizens in jail, mainly for holding views that are not shared by the small group of men and officers who manage the levers of state power.

These structural faults in Arab governance are magnified when leaders behave in the erratic manner that defines most recent Arab summit gatherings. Even when they say something sensible—such as the Mauritanian president’s call for fresh efforts to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, because regional instability would continue until it was resolved—the Arab leaders leave this hanging in the air without any credible follow-up action. This is also hampered by our not really knowing very clearly whether Arab populations want to make war or peace with Israel, support or help lay siege to Palestinians, isolate or normalize relations with Israel in its current state, or collectively shape and push an international campaign to achieve a negotiated, fair peace with Israel based on the 2002 Arab Peace Plan that itself emerged from an Arab summit.

Unless Arab citizens can express their views openly, and participate in shaping decisions and holding decision-makers accountable, our Arab region will continue to lurch from one crisis to another, plagued by our self-inflicted incompetence in shaping a coherent relationship between our citizens and our states, who largely exist in two very different universes.

Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.

Copyright ©2016 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global