Academic journal article McNair Papers

Egypt and the New Arab Coalition

Academic journal article McNair Papers

Egypt and the New Arab Coalition

Article excerpt

AS THE ECONOMIC and political balance among Arab states has shifted over the last twenty years, as alliances have come and gone and attitudes toward Israel have moved from confrontation toward negotiation, the Arabs have convened periodic summits to confirm the changes and turn them into common policy. These meetings are the mileposts of modern Arab diplomatic history. At conferences in Khartoum, Rabat, Baghdad, and Fez, new bearings were set in Arab-Palestinian relations and the conflict with Israel. This past year, in Amman and then in Algiers, two summits were held that illuminate the changes in attitudes and power relationships that have taken place in the Arab world since Camp David.

The recent summits are important not only for the decisions they took--the solid front shown to Iran, Egypt's return to a position of Arab centrality, and the support pledged to the Palestinian uprising. Their longer term significance lies in the emergence of a new dynamic in inter-Arab relations: on all of the controversial issues, a new, centrist Arab coalition dominated the decisionmaking process.

The appearance of this coalition raises a number of questions. Is the growing sense of common interest among Arabs a product of the Gulf war, or are deeper and more enduring factors at work? What issues does the moderate consensus embrace and what are its limits? How strong are the underlying bilateral relationships, especially those between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Iraq? Is the Arab-Israel peace process likely to be affected? And what impact will the Palestinian uprising have on the move toward the center?

Arab Nationalism

Iran's proprietary interest in its Gulf neighbors concentrated Arab attention on what is important to the common interest and what is not. The net effect of the war in the Gulf--along with the Mecca demonstrations and Iranian probing in the smaller sheikhdoms--has not been so much to create new configurations in the Arab world as it has been to accelerate a trend that has been under way for several years. It is a trend toward greater realism, less rhetoric, and a more serious search for common ground. It comes as a result of fundamental changes in the two spheres that most directly affect Arab relationships: the first has to do with ideologies and attitudes, the second with strategic relationships and power.

The eclipse of secular ideology as a driving force in Arab foreign relations has been apparent for more than a decade. Pan-Arabism and Ba'athism--even pan-Islam in the midst of an Islamic revival--have not only ceased to shape foreign policy but have lost even their mythic function of justifying policies based on state or personal power. Nationalism alone remains, and for most Arab countries it is increasingly a pragmatic, economically oriented nationalism without much sentimental overlay.

Contemporary Arab attitudes toward pan-Arabism are especially instructive. If Arab unity as a serious political objective is dead--and it doubtless is--more real interest exists in policy coordination, among a broader spectrum of Arab countries, than existed at the height of pan-Arab fervor. Partly this is because Arab solidarity no longer necessarily means doing things Egypt's way. The main components of power have been leveling in the last two decades, and this leveling has been good for cooperation. The huge growth in oil revenues in what had been the poorer Arab states led to a leap forward in literacy, higher education, and governmental and diplomatic expertise. And while this was going on, Egypt increasingly turned inward, striving to break out of the vise of burgeoning population and limited irrigable land.

Egypt's bowing out of Arab politics has never been a question; Egypt could hardly do so if it wished. It has the largest population in the Middle East and the biggest standing army, a central and strategic location, continuing--if diminished--cultural preeminence, and a reservoir of teachers, technical experts, and farmers who serve by the millions in the oil-rich but population-poor Arab countries. …

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