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Arabia infelix

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Arabia infelix

After 19 years, has the Arab National Congress forgotten what it is about, asks Amira Howeidy in Sanaa


The massive billboard advertising the mobile network Wai in Sanaa proclaims that “Yemen is happy”, an echo of the Roman Arabia Felix, which became in Arabic Al-Yaman Al-Saaid (Happy Yemen). Today’s Yemen, though, is one of the poorest countries in the world, with 40 per cent of its population living below the international poverty line. The spectre of separatist tendencies in the south and a violent insurgency in the north expose a dangerously volatile political situation.

As delegates from across the Arab world flocked into the capital Sanaa last week to attend the 19th Arab National Congress the local press was fixated on the explosive situation in the north, where Houthi fighters clashed with the army in Saada. Scores of people were killed and thousands displaced.

Moves by the Lebanese opposition, led by Hizbullah, to take over Beirut and parts of Lebanon — including the airport road — in response to a government decree to dismantle the group’s communication network also meant that the Beirut-based ANC’s delegation couldn’t leave Lebanon to attend the conference. And during the course of the four-day meeting, between 10 and 13 May, a rebel group in Darfur took over the Sudanese city of Om Durman and almost seized Khartoum, Gaza was plunged into darkness for the second time this year after it ran out of energy supplies, and Tel Aviv showed no signs of lifting the siege that has turned life for the inhabitants of the Hamas-controlled strip into a daily struggle to survive.

Could the Arab scene be more explosive, it was impossible not to wonder, or more in need of a congregation of the ANC’s weight?

The congress was formed in 1990 by a group of Arab nationalist intellectuals and politicians alarmed by the growing conviction within official — and some non-official — circles that the era of Arab nationalism had come to an end. Twelve years after Egypt first broke rank with the Arabs and signed the Camp David accords with Israel in 1978 the stage was being set for the second major U- turn. Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and the Palestinians all went to Madrid in 1991 for “peace talks” with Israel, since which a series of agreements has been signed under the pretext of the promised Palestinian state that has yet to materialise. Israel, meanwhile, won the recognition of the vast majority of Arab states which ended their political and economic boycott of Tel Aviv.

It is against this background of “Arab concessions” and “catastrophes” that the ANC — the 700 members of the Congress includes a virtual roll call of the Arab world’s leading thinkers — has attempted to defend the “Arab nationalist project” independent of Arab governments. Among the ANC’s initiatives are the Islamic National Congress, Al-Quds Institution and the Palestinian Right of Return conference, and the media presence of its more prolific members has allowed the Congress to defend the “Arab idea” and offer alternatives to the neo-liberal approach favoured by Arab governments to the many challenges facing the region.

During the ANC’s 19th round in Sanaa, though, the conference appeared to be suffering from the symptoms of age. Inside the conference room of the lavish Sanaa Mövenpick Hotel, speaker after speaker hogged the podium to deliver speech after speech during which the audience yawned, snoozed or trickled outside for coffee, a cigarette, and to take part in the much livelier discussions going on in the hotel’s lobby.

While Lebanon, Gaza, Yemen and Sudan were making headlines across the world the conference room seemed to be part of a parallel universe, with one speaker arguing that “drugs” constitute the main threat to the Arab world. And if some of the speeches gave the audience a sense of déjà vu, that was only to be expected. They had probably heard them before, word for word, at previous ANC rounds.

There was, of course, the occasional moment of drama, as when Iraqi Shia cleric Ahmed Al-Hosni Al-Baghdadi slammed Iran’s “dubious” role in Iraq and the “mixed messages” it was sending in supporting the resistance in Palestine and Lebanon while undermining the resistance in Iraq. Mohamed Fayek, a minister under Gamal Abdel-Nasser and ex-president of the Arab Organisation for Human Rights, was one of the few speakers to address developments in Beirut inside the conference, arguing that the Lebanese crisis was a “reflection of the Arab world’s fragmented state”, while US-based Lebanese political analyst Munzer Suleiman accused the Lebanese government of being “an extension of American national security in the region”. The Fouad Al-Siniora government, he said, “should have resigned a long time ago and paved the way for elections to end the current crisis”.

While criticism of Arab regimes was muted, Egypt shouldered the lion’s share for its controversial decision to export subsidised natural gas to Israel and for helping to maintain the economic siege of Gaza while its inhabitants are on the verge of starvation.

The ANC isn’t dead — not yet at least — which means that many of its most loyal members felt no qualms in criticising the conference.

“Why,” asked Yassin No’man, a socialist Yemeni politician, “is the ANC not talking about the many political detainees — some of whom are conference members — locked up in Arab jails? If this is a taboo then the ANC has to find another mechanism to justify itself.”

Others, like Abdul-Azim Al-Maghrabi, assistant secretary-general of the Arab Lawyers’ Union, posed existential questions about the ANC’s failure to “become a reference for Arab work”.

If anything, said London-based Egyptian opposition writer Abdul-Hakam Diab, “Arab national discourse is in dire need of renewal”. It was a view shared by many but addressed by none.

Despite the rhetoric and unanswered questions, the ANC managed unanimously to agree to adopt a more serious approach towards the Palestinian right of return and dismissed “futile” discussions of a Palestinian state. The right of return, after all, involves the return of at least five million Palestinian refugees to their homes in the occupied territories and Israel.

“If Jerusalem is part of the homeland, the people are the homeland,” ex-Palestine Liberation Organisation member Abdullah Al-Hourani told the conference on 12 May, “and if the Palestinian people return, so will the land.” He was met with applause.


The 19th Arab National Conference communiquéSummary:

The American imperialist project continues to impose its domination and control of the region by: directly invading and occupying parts of the Arab world as in Iraq; indirectly invading other parts by proxy, as in Ethiopia’s presence in Somalia; intensifying sectarian and ethnic divisions in Arab countries, overtly in Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Somalia and Sudan; pursuing plans to weaken the Arab regional structure to replace it with a Middle Eastern order at the service of US- Zionist interests.

The Zionist entity continues to practise its expansionist policy and impose its vision of a political settlement on the region by adopting the following methods: attempting to obliterate Palestinian armed resistance groups; hampering efforts to unify these groups; starving and placing the Palestinian people under siege as is happening in Gaza in violation of all known principles and standards; massacring civilians as part of an institutionalised policy of genocide to force the Palestinians to relinquish the right to resist occupation; Zionising and Judaising Jerusalem; attempting to disarm the resistance in Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq.

On the domestic front:

Arab countries are suffering from the alliance of corruption and tyranny that controls authority and wealth. In this environment of defeatism, backwardness and subservience to US and Western agendas, the collapse of the education and health services was as inevitable as the prevalence of unemployment, poverty, illiteracy and political congestion.

The ANC concludes that:

The only way to stop this deterioration is to adopt a collective project of renaissance devised by national, patriotic, Islamic and leftist forces that believe in the nation’s unity and which reject foreign occupation. The ANC calls upon all the nation’s elite to double their efforts to devise a premise for national Arab security.

The conference emphasises that democracy, civil liberties and human rights, which are non-existing or minimal in the Arab world, are essential requirements for the nation’s progress. The ANC stresses the importance of the struggle for democracy and human rights and calls upon Arab governments to release all political detainees.

The ANC clearly and unequivocally declares its full support for Arab and Islamic resistance groups in Palestine, Iraq, Lebanon and Somalia and calls for their protection, unity and preservation of arms. It also welcomes resistance to all forms of normalisation with the Zionist entity and the promotion of all forms of boycott.

The ANC looks forward to Arab-Iranian rapprochement to resolve pending issues between the Arabs and Iran, including issues of serious misunderstandings, specifically on the issue of Iraq. Iran’s relations with Iraq should be based on a rejection of occupation and its institutional outcomes and provide means to defeat it, in addition to a commitment to Iraq’s Arab identity and unity and for Iran to refrain from any intervention in Iraq that violates these commitments.

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