How Syria Looks from Cairo

Rami G. Khouri

CAIRO -- I am following the continuing drama of the Arab League monitors in Syria these days from Cairo, the base of the Arab League and a city that is engaged in its own epic struggle to shape a new political order after a citizen revolt removed the former regime from office. The contrast between the Syrian and Egyptian situations today captures one of the most important and recurring dynamics of the modern Arab world: foreign intervention in the affairs of sovereign Arab states in transition.
It is quiet here in Cairo today, mainly because it is Friday, but also because all eyes are on other venues beyond Tahrir Square: the court trial of Mubarak and his officials, the parliamentary and constitutional processes that are underway, a fascination among some with incumbent Islamists forming a parliamentary majority, the upcoming presidential election, and the looming anniversary of the January 25 revolution. But just off Tahrir Square, at the Arab League headquarters, we may witness some important decisions this weekend, as Arab officials gather to assess the first report by the Arab League monitors in Syria.
Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Bahrain, Libya and Yemen have witnessed a range of foreign intervention, from the extreme of NATO waging war in Libya, and from Saudi Arabia sending a symbolic column of troops into Bahrain, to the Arab League’s monitors mission to Syria to determine Syrian government compliance with the agreement aiming to wind down the military violence and killing, and to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) diplomatic intervention to end the confrontations in Yemen. Tunisia and Egypt removed their dictators without overt foreign intervention, which remains defined today mainly by Arab and Western money flowing into assorted political quarters.
We now have three models of Arab political change that reflect, respectively, a home-grown process, another that relies on foreign military and diplomatic/sanctions intervention, and a third that includes a major role for regional Arab bodies like the Arab League or the GCC. The importance of the Syrian situation with its Arab League monitors is that it combines elements of all three. If it succeeds -- which is debatable right now, given the mediocre performance of the monitors during their initial weeks -- it could usher in an important new role for the Arab League at a moment when this long ridiculed and impotent body has shown signs of trying to regenerate itself. We may have a hint of this in the coming days, following the Arab League’s scheduled meeting Saturday to assess the monitors’ initial report and decide its next steps, if any.
The critical link in my mind for why the Arab League’s approach to resolving the Syrian situation may be significant is its already expressed intention to refer the Syrian situation to the UN Security Council and other international organs if the Syrian government does not implement its agreement with the Arab League. In other words, the Arab League seems to be repositioning itself as a link between indigenous Arab efforts to ensure peace and security with the available global mechanisms to do this. This is potentially historic because it would provide that legitimate deterrent mechanism that has always been missing from the League’s toolbox of political action. The League could also play the critical role of blending established global norms of human rights and lawful behavior with prevailing social, cultural and political norms in the Arab world. This is important because in some cases Arab miscreants and criminals who kill their own people -- whether government officials or civilian thugs – tend to be more amenable to indigenous conflict-resolution efforts and hesitant to change in the face of foreign (i.e., Western-dominated) pressure, sanctions and threats.
The monitoring mission in Syria has been unimpressive, due to a combination of logistical constraints and management weaknesses. This reflects the two structural sources of its weakness: The Arab League, being a collection of Arab governments, suffers chronic incompetence, and the Syrian government does not seem to be serious about implementing its agreement with the Arab League, which requires it to stop killing peaceful demonstrators. Sadly, Syrians struggling for their freedom and rights will continue to die by the dozens every day, it seems, until some other mechanism is found that will force the government to end its policy of urban mass murder.
The weakness of the monitoring mechanism to date could be offset by the determination of the Arab League to go to the next step, and take the issue to the UN Security Council or even seek indictments of Syrian officials at the International Criminal Court (ICC). Neither of those options guarantees that the killing will stop, or that Syrians can expect a peaceful transition to a democratic system of government. Yet for the Arab League to embark on a path that ultimately leads to these two bodies is a novelty worth monitoring.
The contrast among the six Arab countries that have experienced serious citizen revolts is striking, and reminds us again that each country must be analyzed in its own context. Egypt and Syria remind us that national transformations in the Arab world will take place along very different trajectories, blending local, regional and global pressures as needed. Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. Copyright © 2012 Rami G. Khouri -- distributed by Agence Global