The revival of an elusive dream

Will the hawks bring about what the US has tried to stop for 50 years: Arab unity? Neil Clark report

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If ever there was a time to have taken that long-promised Nile cruise, this Easter was it. Holidays in Egypt were available at up to a quarter of the brochure prices, and the historical sites in the Valley of the Kings were pleasantly free of crowds. All this is the result of the war in Iraq, which has hit the local economy hard. To the estimated 38-45 per cent drop in tourist revenues one must add the loss of markets in Iraq, the fall in revenues from expatriates and the extra premiums on shipping, imposed by unscrupulous international insurance companies that designated Egypt as part of the "war zone". The total cost of war to Egypt is estimated to be in the region of $8bn.

Yet there may be an upside. "I'm actually glad this aggression took place," says Amin Youssry, an ex-diplomat who served in several capital cities including Baghdad. "It's time the Arabs woke up."

What he means is evident throughout Egypt. From the newspapers to the coffee shops, there is one topic of conversation: how can the Arabs come together economically and militarily to ensure that what happened to Iraq never happens to another Arab state?

Egyptians are under no illusions that US policy will necessarily change with a Republican defeat in 2004. They regard the present administration as the gravest threat to Arab independence since the Crusades, but they have also heard the recent hawkish pronouncements on Syria by such prominent Democratic hopefuls as Joe Lieberman and Bob Graham.

Members of Bush's entourage now advocate "destabilising" Egypt, hitherto regarded as a US ally: for 30 years, it has done almost everything demanded of it by Washington. Richard Perle, the influential defence adviser, was asked during an Australian radio interview about Egyptian intellectuals' fears that war in Iraq would lead to an Arab backlash. He replied: "Egyptians can barely govern their own country. We really don't need advice on how to defend ours."

As the Middle East wakes up to its plight, there are signs that Egypt, the most populous Arab nation, is again ready to play a pivotal role. Public opinion is pushing the normally cautious president, Hosni Mubarak, into taking a more openly pan-Arabist stance. This is not the combination of socialism and nationalist rhetoric that made Gamal Abdel Nasser a hero to Arabs half a century ago. The new pan-Arabism is more defensive, more measured and circumspect. Mubarak's room for manoeuvre is more limited than Nasser's. For a start, Egypt remains, after Israel, the second-biggest recipient of US foreign aid.

So for Mubarak, the key precondition to an effective Arab front is increased economic co-operation: to reduce dependency on the US by increasing intra-Arab trade (at present only 8 per cent of all trade in the region) and also trade with Africa and the European Union. He has called for a common Arab market modelled on the EU.

Cairo also wants to transform the Arab League into a more powerful and effective decision-making body. Already, since the fall of Baghdad, the Arab nations have moved towards a more unified foreign policy stance, with demands (joined by Turkey and Iran)on the US to end its occupation of Iraq and clear endorsements of Syria's proposal to the UN Security Council that the Middle East should be free of weapons of mass destruction.

Paradoxically, Saddam Hussein's downfall makes Arab unity more likely. Although Saddam himself appealed for the countries of the Middle East to unite in 1979 (thus triggering the first US embar-go against Iraq), his invasion of Kuwait, and the other "baggage" surrounding his regime, helped to prevent a more common Arab defence policy. Now he is gone, there is less to divide the Arab world. There is also no excuse for any Arab state to have US forces stationed on its land.

True, there was a public row between Muammar Gaddafi and Crown Prince Abdullah at the latest Arab League summit; and while Egypt, Syria and Libya may genuinely want greater co-operation, the oil-rich Gulf states remain at best lukewarm to the idea. But we should not underestimate the mood sweeping the region. The Arabs may not possess the sophisticated weapons of the US and Israel, but they could close the Suez Canal and turn off the taps of 25 per cent of the world's oil production.

Arab unity has until now been an elusive dream. It has taken a cabal of Israel-supporting American hawks to achieve it. By removing Saddam and adopting a bullying stance towards other Arab states, Perle and his fellow "serial regime changers" may end up bringing about the one thing the US State Department has tried to prevent for half a century.

This article appears in the 05 May 2003 issue of the New Statesman, The defeat of the left