Fifty years have elapsed since the shameful defeat of the combined Arab armies in Palestine. I am certain neither the present nor the future Arab generations will ever forget that horrible nightmare.
In order to dream of a better future for the Arab world, we must know exactly where we are now in 1998. An observer of the contemporary Arab world today, from the ccean to the Gulf, cannot help but reach the conclusion that at the end of the twentieth century, more than a hundred years following the birth of Arab nationalism, the Arabs still find themselves in one of the darkest periods in their history. Algeria bleeds and drowns in its own blood; Egypt, the leading Arab state, wallows in poverty and suffers from bouts of internal terrorism; Lebanon has just begun to get over its seventeen year civil war; and Iraq, the Arab country with great economic potential, stands embargoed, isolated, starved, disarmed, divided and virtually occupied by the so-called UN observers. Meanwhile, the oil rich Arab states have mortgaged their oil wealth to pay for Western sophisticated weaponry that they do not need and cannot ever maintain, let alone use in battle. In brief, from the ocean to the Gulf, with little exception, the Arabs present a pathetic picture of oppression, poverty and waste. In foreign affairs they stand disunited, powerless, dependent and unable to influence the international community on behalf of Arab causes.
It is depressing indeed, that despite its strategic and economic advantages, this Arab world which borders the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea, the Gulf, the Mediterranean Sea, the Suez Canal and the Atlantic Ocean; this Arab world which is so rich in natural and human resources; yes, this Arab world which stretches over two continents, Asia and Africa, and which borders Europe seems so marginalized and so impotent both on the regional and international scenes.
What has led to this dismal situation the Arabs find themselves mired in today? Although an academic may explain the current state of affairs as stemming from the general backwardness of Arab society, I think the main responsibility falls on the type of leadership the Arabs have had in this century, especially since World War II. This leadership, revolutionary or “reactionary,” can be described as arbitrary, unrepresentative, oppressive, uninformed, dictatorial, selfish and unaccountable. Through its unilateral, impulsive, unmeditated political action this leadership is responsible for the principle setbacks in modern Arab history such as the loss of Palestine in 1948, the humiliation of 1967, the splintering of Arab ranks during and following the October 1973 War, and the destruction of Kuwait and Iraq in 1990-91. I hold the political leadership responsible for these blunders, not the military or the people, because when the military leadership was given a clear-cut task to accomplish, it did so with distinction. Thus, the successful crossing of the Suez Canal in the early hours of the October War and the storming of the Golan Heights by the Syrian Army. However, the failure to take full advantage of these initial successes in the war falls on the political leadership, namely the unilateral decision taken by the Egyptian President Anwar Al-Sadat. Not unlike the Arab armies, the Arab masses rallied against the tripartite attack on Egypt in 1956 and solidly supported Arab causes thereafter. It is also important to emphasize that not only the political leadership fragmented Egyptian-Syrian unity in the October War, it also blunted the oil weapon which was used effectively by the late King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, for the first time, in support of Arab political objectives. President Sadat took the lead in lobbying for the lifting of the Arab oil embargo, putting more trust in the U.S. Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, than in Egyptian-Syrian coordination. It goes without saying, therefore, that the Arab political leadership, with the singular exception of that of President Assad of Syria, has never risen to the level of understanding and sophistication demanded by the magnitude and complexity of Arab problems.
What the Arab political leadership has tragically failed to understand is that the best assurance of Arab rights and common good is Arab unity, political coordination and collective action. After Egypt went ahead with an Egypt-first policy and signed a separate peace with Israel at the behest of the United States, it was isolated in the Arab world and expelled from the Arab League. Having lost Arab leadership and financial backing, Egypt lost its international prestige and became hostage to the two billion dollars it receives annually from the U.S. Without the leadership of Egypt, the other Arab states suffered more disarray and moved from one crisis to another such as the wasteful eight-year Iran-Iraq War, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and its dire consequences on Lebanese and Palestinians, alike, and the destruction of Iraq, following its mindless occupation of Kuwait in 1990. The Arab ordeal, however, does not end here. On the verge of the opening of the U.S.-sponsored Middle East Peace Conference at Madrid in the fall of 1991, the participating Arab States agreed in advance that none of them would sign a separate peace behind the others’ backs! Following two years of fruitless negotiations, the PLO leadership opted to sign the secretly negotiated and alarmingly open-ended Oslo accords, thus breaking Arab ranks and further weakening the Arab position. Since then, the Arab states entered a sort-of-a race to recognize Israel and normalize relations with it, at a time when full peace with the Palestinians is almost dead. Palestinians are evicted from Old Jerusalem, South Lebanon and the Golan Heights are still occupied, and the future of Jerusalem remains unresolved. Only Syria and Lebanon still hold the line, calling for full implementation of Security Council Resolutions 242 and 425.
This is a short account of modern Arab history, a bleak one indeed. However, I am not hopeless. I see light at the end of the tunnel, although the Arab tunnel is long and dark. I see light at the end of the tunnel because history is not measured by a century or two. History is the collective story of a people from beginning to end. It is the story of those who are dead, the living, and those yet to be born. History tells us that no nation occupied the peak for good. The West has seized the leadership of the world since the Scientific Revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Before that time, the Chinese and the Arabs were in the lead. Taking history as a guide, I do not believe that some one hundred fifty million Arabs can be written off for good and relegated to the dustbin of history. The Arabs, however, must do their homework. They must reread their history and draw the right conclusions. History tells us that foreign occupation, past and present, direct or indirect, entered the Arab world largely through holes provided by the Arabs themselves. The Western Crusaders succeeded, at the end of the eleventh century, in occupying the Syrian coastline and Jerusalem, not because of their numbers or advanced technology but because of the division of the Arab Camp into two hostile states, an Abbasid one based in Baghdad, and a Fatimid one based in Cairo. Similarly, the Arabs would not have lost Palestine in 1948 had they not been divided into selfish rival regimes, each looking for its own regional interest and placing trust in the West!
The seven-year old and still unfolding Iraqi tragedy should never have occurred, and would never have occurred, had it not been for the divisions created in Arab ranks by the occupation of Kuwait contrary to the Charters of the Arab League and the United Nations. Furthermore, leading Arab states jumped on the UN-US bandwagon, willingly or unwillingly, to provide the necessary Arab cover to destroy Iraq and starve its children in the name of international law.
If we accept the thesis that Arab disunity is responsible for Arab setbacks, then the reverse is also true, that Arab salvation lies in Arab unity. When Egypt and Syria united together in the twelfth century, Jerusalem was recovered, and the Crusaders were defeated at the famous battle of Hitteen. Similarly, when the Arab masses mobilized against the tripartite attack on Egypt in 1956, aggression was defeated. It is time the Arab countries realize that salvation comes from within the Arab world, not from without. It is time the Arab leaderships realize that united, they stand; divided, they fall.
The Arab countries share more bonds and common denominators together than did the German or Italian states in the 1860’s. Why could Germany and Italy unite and the Arab states cannot? Why could the fifty diverse American states forge a strong federation and the twenty-two Arab states cannot? Why can the countries of Western Europe forget their bloody past and forge political and economic unity and the Arabs cannot? It seems to me that what Germany, Italy and the U.S. had, but the Arabs have so far lacked, is capable, enlightened leadership. I remain confident that in due time the Arabs will produce the leadership that will rise to the occasion and translate the Arabs’ aspirations to unity and economic prosperity into reality. Let us hope and pray that the twenty-first century will see the rise of the Arabs from the pit of history to the peace of success and unity.
(Metropolitan PHILIP is the Archbishop of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese. His speech was delivered at ADC’s national convention in Washington, D.C. in June by his brother Dr. Najib Saliba)