The Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa (left), former Lebanese President Emile Lahoud and an aide talk at the start of the March 27 2002 Arab League summit in Beirut.
The Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa (left), former Lebanese President Emile Lahoud and an aide talk at the start of the March 27 2002 Arab League summit in Beirut.

Stuck in the middle



In his new book, the former Jordanian foreign minister Marwan Muasher emphasises the need for a moderate Arab centre. But, Kristen Gillespie notes, reform must mean more than siding with American policy.
The Arab Center: The Promise of Moderation Marwan Muasher Yale University Press Dh130
On March 27, 2002, Arab leaders gathered in Beirut for a summit to discuss the extraordinary idea of offering peace and recognition to Israel in exchange for the establishment of a Palestinian state and Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines. Peace negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis had reached the low point of a low period; in the weeks ahead of the summit, officials from Jordan and Saudi Arabia worked the phones, shuttling between Arab capitals to secure support for the plan. Iraq was against the idea, but with an American invasion on the horizon, it had bigger problems. Lebanon, always prickly about the idea of Palestinian refugees trying to permanently settle there, was adamant about adding language to the contrary. The Arab world's crazy aunt in the attic, Colonel Moamer Qadafi, categorically refused to offer security guarantees to Israel. Syria put up repeated hurdles, insisting on removing "full normalisation" with Israel from the draft and changing it to "full peace," only to later insist it be changed to "normal peaceful relations". But that very evening, years of backstage diplomacy were scuttled in the few seconds it took a suicide bomber to walk into a hotel lobby in Netanya, Israel, crowded with people preparing for the Passover meal, detonate himself and kill 30 people.

The next day, the Arab Initiative passed unanimously, but by then it was a footnote to history. Israel was preparing a devastating punishment, and once again the forces of moderation lost out. Such is the plight of what the Jordanian diplomat and Oslo peace negotiator Marwan Muasher calls, in his book of the same title, "the Arab centre" - the loose federation composed, in his simple definition, of those moderate states willing to work to pull the rest of the Arab world toward regional peace with Israel.

Life in the Arab middle is not easy these days. Whether it's the fault of Israeli intransigence, heavy-handed (and uneven) American "democracy promotion", or empty reform rhetoric from Arab dictatorships, there's not much left to work with. Muasher's own definition of the Arab centre is a feeble one: "the new troika of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan" that emerged in the aftermath of September 11 with the goal of a two-state solution for Palestinians and Israelis. These three autocratic states comprise the core of the Arab centre, he writes, because they enjoy "good relations not just with the international community in general but with the West and the United States in particular."

If only that were enough. Surely moderation should not include imprisoning moderate yet oppositional political figures like Egypt's Ayman Noor on trumped up charges, or accelerating the record number of executions taking place in Saudi Arabia, or giving free rein to the Jordanian intelligence services that largely operate outside the purview of the law. Yet Muasher unironically posits that these same three countries are leading the Arab world towards moderation. In doing so, he focuses entirely on their dealings with the United States, and discounts political stagnation on the home front.

As Jordan's former ambassador to the United States, its first ambassador to Israel and its former foreign minister, Muasher has had a front-row seat for most of the peace process, and his account adds a rare Arab voice to the English-language literature on the subject. But his narrow definition of the Arab centre amounts to little more than a buzzword grafted onto a memoir of his distinguished career. Muasher's Arab centre seems like a diplomatic construct, real enough in the context of the peace process - but not the kind of sustainable base from which real internal reforms in the Arab world might emerge.

Back to the two-state solution: as Muasher tells it, the trio of moderate states faces obstacles from all sides. He includes some not-so-diplomatic dialogue, including what George W Bush told Jordan's King Abdullah in 2004: "I am sick of the Palestinian-Israeli issue." Bush, Muasher writes, "was not like President Clinton: he had no facility for nuance and instead tended to see things in black and white." Israeli officials, he argues, agree to one thing and unilaterally do the opposite. Yasser Arafat in his final years comes across as utterly useless, which might explain Jordan's pre-eminent role in lobbying Israel and the United States for Palestinian interests (which generally coincide with Jordan's own). For these reasons and more, Muasher concludes, "the Road Map never had a fighting chance. Each side blamed the other." But Muasher places the most blame on the United States for not holding Israel accountable for agreements and promises made in regard to the Palestinians.

For those interested in the inner workings of international relations, Muasher weaves amusing and revealing commentary throughout the narrative of his conflicts with the then-Syrian foreign minister Farouq al Sharaa. And he pulls no punches when describing the Syrian style of negotiating, which he sums up with phrases like "no serious understanding of the outside world", "immediately took a hardline position" and "typically combative". Other descriptions of tedious phone calls and peace proposal draft revisions will interest only the most detail-oriented of observers.

Muasher is clearly an exceptional diplomat. His role as a pioneer in opening relations with Israel cannot be understated; though many in the Arab world considered him a traitor, he was one of the few Arab voices to explain the Arab perspective directly to Israelis. This was in contrast to the unwritten Arab policy (that more or less held for decades) to ignore, snub and boycott Israelis rather than talk directly to them. The political capital Muasher thus collected was used well throughout the 1990s, not only to repeat to Israel and its public that Jordan sought the creation of a Palestinian state (even when Israeli officials brashly told him that Jordan's interests ran otherwise), but also to promote the two-state solution in Washington.

In the chapter describing his ten months as ambassador to Israel, Muasher eloquently appeals to the Arab world to stop scorning Palestinians who live inside Israel, reminding readers that their mere presence in Israel - and their participation in political life there - has a demographic impact that Israel cannot ignore. "I admired their resolve, their determination to stay on their land and to rebuild their lives after being abandoned by friend and foe," he writes. The bottom line, Muasher argues, is that a peaceful settlement will come from negotiations, not boycotts. This is not an abstract point for the diplomat. In perhaps the most personal episode in his chronicle of public life, he finds his mother's former home in Jaffa. Though tempted to knock on the door to see who is now living there, he drives away, remembering his official role as a Jordanian envoy.

The Arab centre seems to exit stage left as the curtain goes down on the Arab Initiative. As Muasher turns his attention to the failures of Arab reform, he depicts Jordan as a pioneer dragging hesitant Arab nations towards the future. Jordan's leadership is indeed savvy enough to know which way the wind is blowing out of Washington, and the invasion of Iraq, combined with the Bush Administration's blustery rhetoric, sent a clear message to the Arab world: reform or be reformed.

The result was the 2004 Arab summit in Tunis, where member states (with the exception of Libya) accepted a declaration of principles that, though non-binding, pledged the expansion of women's rights, the independence of the judiciary and the strengthening of civil society. These are points that any country should probably work on. But in the Arab world violations are particularly egregious. Unfortunately, little good came from the 2004 agreement; the Bush Administration backed away from reform after the 2006 electoral victory of Hamas in the Palestinian territories.

Muasher's Arab centre is essentially defined by its consistently warm relations with the United States regardless of American policy in the region - be it unstinting support for Israel or invasion of Iraq. And as long as these states stay on the good side of the US, they will almost certainly never be held to account when it comes to reform. Discussing reform seems to be an effective way to postpone it. Real reform means being accountable, relatively transparent to the public and bound by the rule of law. Muasher understands this perfectly well, but his own country often seems to talk the most while doing the least.

Jordan's King Abdullah regularly visits Washington, talks to the media about the extensive reform underway in Jordan and then returns home, where reforms have remained at a complete standstill since early 2006. The case of Jordan handily illustrates how entrenched interests and weak institutions resist reform, not only in that country, but across the Arab world. When discussing reform in the Arab world as a whole, Muasher observes that a constrained political scene generates more support for the Islamist parties, the only cohesive opposition in the region. "Without a free press, opposition parties, or a vibrant civil society, the privileges of the elite expanded, and their interest in protecting them grew in tandem," he writes. Muasher knows this better than most from his experience trying and failing to institute broad reform in Jordan.

In 2004, Muasher was tapped to be Jordan's deputy prime minister in charge of reform, a post created for him - and one that tellingly no longer exists. In the year before this appointment, he had worn yet another hat while serving as foreign minister, heading a royal committee to develop a broad reform program called the National Agenda. The committee, which consisted of 26 individuals from the public and private sectors, released a 2,500-page plan that promised transparency in government, monitoring mechanisms and measurable goals such as medical insurance for all Jordanians by 2012, and the creation of 600,000 jobs over the next 10 years.

Such a comprehensive program will naturally meet resistance when the only viable forces excluding the Islamist opposition consist of powerful tribes, a fifth column given endless handouts in exchange for a loyalty which they periodically undermine; a business oligarchy granted contracts and other favours as the regime sees fit; a political elite that has strangled the election process with gerrymandering and rigged elections; and the vaunted intelligence services, busy squashing or co-opting any sort of civil society before it can take root.

The old guard, writes Muasher, comprises "individuals mainly associated with the public sector - government officials, ex-officials and long-serving bureaucrats" along with "personalities who had dominated Jordanian politics" and "a handful of businessmen who have accrued both wealth and power thanks to their close alliance with the state." The power of this old guard has strangled not only civil society but also any substantial prospect of an open, competitive economy. Unfortunately, Muasher's description of this contingent is hopelessly vague. He is happy to name names when pinpointing setbacks to the peace process, but his aborted reform effort in Jordan is given only the most general of treatment over a handful of pages.

The modern Jordanian state, as a set of accountable institutions, was built to fail in order to concentrate power in the hands of the monarch, and in this sense it has succeeded. In Jordan, "no countervailing force existed to match the influence of the traditional elite," Muasher writes. Of course, the state has never allowed any such force to exist - a conclusion he avoids even while blaming the same elite for turning the public against the National Agenda. But when the government owns the country's largest newspaper, and tightly controls the press as a whole, it is misguided to point fingers at nebulous elites as the obstacles to reform.

In dissecting what went wrong, Muasher neglects to mention that the National Agenda bypassed the very same dysfunctional state institutions it set out to reform. The royal committee came up with a massive plan and handed it over to the government and parliament, which had no official mandate or input during the process. When government representatives began praising the plan publicly, it was a sure-fire sign that a great deal of forestalling was to come. The Agenda was then taken up by a government committee, where political initiatives go to die.

Whether it was his intention or not, Muasher convincingly depicts Jordan as an example of how not to reform, which is to say, by royal fiat. "Reform does not happen because the leadership of country wishes it," he writes. The question for Muasher is whether he is part of the leadership or part of the reformers seeking accountability. Because in this corner of the Arab world, it seems you can't be both.
Kristen Gillespie is is a reporter based in Amman. She has written for the Columbia Journalism Review, The Nation and National Public Radio.

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