10/09/2009, 00.00
MIDDLE EAST
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Will it be another ‘Lost Century’ for the Arab World?

by Fady Noun
King Abdullah’s trip to Syria raises questions about the Arab world’s capacity to take charge of its own history and cope with modernity. If the impact of the meeting between the Saudi and Syrian leaders on government formation in Lebanon is any indications, naysayers seem to have the upper hand.
Beirut (AsiaNews) – Will the Arab world take advantage of the 21st century better than it did with the 20th? The Saudi king’s visit to Syria, with all the political ghosts it has raised, is a good time to ask that question.

A few years, Ghassan Tuéni, Jean Lacouture and Gérard Khoury looked at the main developments of the history of the Arab Middle East in The Lost Century: The Middle-East from the Ottoman Empire to the American (in French).

In it, the authors tried to understand the reasons for the Arab world’s incapacity to successfully take charge of its own history and cope with modernity. Ostensibly, such a failure could be attributed primarily to an inability in Arab societies to allow reason to emerge as “autonomous sphere” in political and cultural life. However, the issue is complex and deserves closer attention. Without exception, all Arab societies are involved in this process. The opening of a new mega university in Saudi Arabia, a place of exchange and modernity, is a sign of that.

The book comes down hard on many Arab countries for sacrificing their elites in the name of progress that never materialised; it slams how easily military dictatorship went hand in hand with nepotism and corruption; it points out how Arab countries failed to intelligently use oil resources to build a real economy and achieve any form of lasting political union; and finally it highlights the sense of loss felt in many Arab countries, Palestinians first and foremost, for the tragic fate of Palestine. A sense of lost opportunity runs through the book.

Of course, the West played a crucial role in this loss through its cynicism (called “realpolitik”), economic interests, compromises, concessions to dictators, treason (the 1917 Balfour Declaration in favour of Jewish national home), blindness, especially American vis-à-vis Israel, best exemplified today by the tragedy in Gaza and ongoing Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Ten years into the new century and no one knows yet whether the lessons of the past have been learnt or whether the new century will just pass the Arabs by. Indeed, danger weighs heavily on the Arab Renaissance (an-Nahda) of the 19th century, which despite some cultural shortcomings found embodiment in certain democratic experiences.

Like other Arab countries Lebanon is a prisoner of its history, demography, communal divisions, societal fragmentation, individualism and a culture of impunity rooted in Hizbollah’s militarisation, all of which is slowly moving towards chaos. How long will it last?

Will King Abdullah’s visit to Syria have a positive impact on the formation of Lebanon’s government?

It will, if Lebanon is treated as “neutral ground” and its new cabinet is allowed to be set up; if an Arab common market follows along the lines of emerging regional labour and financial markets; if a spirit of cooperation is treated as an absolute necessity to cope with the political, economic and military challenges now faced by the Arab world.

It will not, if a spirit of confrontation continues with Lebanon as a bargaining chip in regional politics; if Iran continues to use Lebanon as a card in its negotiations with the West; if the United States continues to view Hizbollah as a “terrorist party” and refuses to grant it any indirect international legitimacy, all this on the eve of Lebanon’s two–year membership as a non-permanent member of the United Nations starting next year.

Sadly, the naysayers are in the driver’s seat right now. Dominated by Tehran’s nuclear programme and its political and ideological expansionism, and threats of Israel’s military retaliation and its arrogant settlement actions, events in the region are or could get out of hand.

Despite US President Barack Obama’s apparent good will, nothing will change if the means to get Israel to see reason continue to be so unconvincing.

It is hard to see how amidst all this haze, a divided Lebanese ship can find a safe harbour.

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