Saturday, December 31, 2011

Toothless and Tone Deaf

It took exactly one day for the Syrian protesters to figure out what the Arab League sent them to "observe" the state of civil strife in that poor unfortunate country.
At the League, the dispatch of monitors to Syria was seen as a determined and courageous initiative. And it's true the League has been short on initiatives since its founding. Mostly it has issued communiqu├ęs as full of smoke, hyperbole and hypocrisy as is each delegate and the countries they lead.
For three decades, the Arab League has used the Israeli-Palestinian dispute as its all-purpose fig-leaf. It has substituted rhetoric for serious recommendations, perhaps with the exception of a "peace plan" put forth by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia in 2002 and again in 2007. Skeptical observers believe that the League would rather have a live issue than a resolved dispute.
(This is not to deny that successive Israeli governments have not behaved in similar ways, but that's a subject for another day.)
So back to Day One in Syria. That's when the protestors learned that the head of the Arab League mission has been the intelligence chief in Darfur, working for Sudan's president, Omar al-Bashir, who has been charged with 10 charges of war crimes. It would be a huge stretch to believe that the League's man, General Mustafa Dabi, had no inkling that Darfurians were experiencing any inconveniences.
The first meeting of the General and the protesters happened in the city of Homs, which has been reported in the West as the scene of a massive bloodbath, with security services firing randomly into a crowd of citizens.On the very day that General al-Dabi visited Homs, rebel forces reported that 19 people were there were killed by Assad's security men.
As Syrian tanks pulled out of Homs, "activists charged that the government's action was a ruse to mislead observers from the Arab League." But General Mustafa Dabi said, "The situation seemed reassuring so far." He added, "Some places looked a bit of a mess but there was nothing frightening." He said he plans to return to Homs as well as to other cities that have been under Syrian fire.
Let us pray that the General does return and does not represent the views of the other 150 monitors now in the country. Maybe it would be fair to ascribe his somewhat confused rhetoric to first-day-settling-in issues.
But, given the lackluster performance of the Arab League over many years, what is it reasonable to expect from this group of Dinosaurs?
Look at these members of the League, minus recently expelled Syria and plus Libya, restored to membership after Gadaffi fell.
The League consists of Algeria, Bahrain, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq ,Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Palestine,Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.
Can we point to one democracy, however defined, among these 20 countries? Can we point to those in which a Sunni Muslim King or President rules over a majority Shia population? Can we name one that allows its citizens complete freedom of religion? Can we name one not based on crony-capitalism? How many can we find who won't arrest you with a warrant, hold you without charges or a lawyer, torture or perhaps kill you in detention, and – if you're lucky – get a sham show-trial that might last, say, 10 minutes.
Saudi Arabia and Egypt have always occupied positions of great influence within the League. So it offers no comfort whatever to learn that the Saudis are planning to introduce really draconian legislation which would criminalize any unlicensed public assembly, while Egypt's "interim" military rulers are trying to figure out how they can appear to be giving up their power to civilians while in fact making it harder for anyone except a general do actually get anything done.
After a day's experience with the League monitors, the Syrian protesters are calling for their dismissal and referral of the whole matter to the United Nations.
Nice idea, but lest we forget, Russia and China appear steadfast in trying to preserve their countries' lucrative commercial ties. Don't expect any boat-rocking from these two.