The Not-So-Revolutionary Arab League: Flexing GCC Muscle

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The Arab League has suspended Syria and called on the Baathist regime led by president Bashar al-Assad to end its violent crackdown on nine months of pro-democracy demonstrations. (Photo: AFP - Mohamed Hossam)

By: Matthew Cassel

Published Saturday, November 19, 2011

The uprisings sweeping the region have succeeded in transforming the Arab League into a force for change. No longer will the coalition of 22 – now 21 – states tolerate tyranny and attacks on civilians from its members. It has darted into a phone booth and come out clad in blue tights and a red cape ready to fight for justice.

This has been the attitude of many commentators who responded with great enthusiasm to the Arab League's decision to suspend Syria last week.

"The Arab awakening continues," wrote Rami Khouri of the body's newfound "sovereignty". The Economist described it as an "unexpectedly strong" move by the Arab League. Last week's suspension of Syria from the Arab League, the second such suspension this year after a similar move against Muammar Gaddafi's Libya in February, is seen as a new phase for the League that had been largely dormant in recent years.

Until the move against Gaddafi, there was no action taken against any of the other Arab states that witnessed uprisings and subsequent violent government crackdowns. After watching the fall of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, the heads of Arab League states - nearly all dictators or unelected monarchs themselves - watched closely hoping their turn wouldn't come next. At times, Arab League members even played a direct role in assisting others in the crackdown of pro-democracy protests.

Now, the Arab League has suspended Syria and called on the Baathist regime led by president Bashar al-Assad to end its violent crackdown on nine months of pro-democracy demonstrations. While many may see this as a positive step toward ending the bloodshed in Syria, it also further exposes a hypocrisy of Arab governments, particularly those in the Gulf, seeking to strengthen their influence in the region and control the wave of popular uprisings.

The Arab League is almost the same body as it was before Mohamed Bouazizi sparked revolt in Tunisia in December, 2010. There are only three new "revolutionary" members -- Tunisia, Egypt and Libya -- whose rulers have all been toppled in the past year.

But in all three North African countries, politicians and activists have accused Saudi Arabia and Qatar of picking favorites by financing certain political parties and movements. In Libya, former NTC prime minister Mahmoud Jibril pointed to Qatar as the "most obvious" example of foreign meddling in the country and said it's playing too big a role in the country after Gaddafi's downfall.

But what about the uprisings in other Arab states?

Feeling rightfully neglected by the Arab League after its suspension of Syria, Yemenis chanted at their protests - the longest of all the ongoing Arab uprisings - for the League to also suspend "their" government. Protesters also called for the continuation of their unarmed struggle and to "resist" an initiative by the Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and the United Arab Emirates) that would grant Ali Abdullah Saleh with immunity if he were to relinquish power.

And of course there is that other unavoidable scratch in the broken, but what some might otherwise consider harmonious, record of the "Arab Spring": Bahrain. When it came to the small Gulf state, the Arab League not only put absolutely no pressure on the government to end its crackdown on pro-democracy protesters, it did not condemn, let alone meet to discuss the deployment of thousands of foreign troops to the country by GCC nations to aid in the crackdown.

This would be like Egypt today sending tens of thousands of troops to Syria to help al-Assad quell the uprising against him. Not only would the Arab League surely take action, but so too would the US and other Western nations. However, in Bahrain, the League did nothing as the multinational army brutally suppressed the homegrown and unarmed pro-democracy movement.

After the suspension of Syria, members of Bahrain's opposition reportedly tried to send a letter to the Arab League's secretary general earlier this week calling for their plight to be added to the League's agenda. The Arab League refused to receive the letter.

Also this week, King Abdullah of Jordan, who, like Bashar Assad, assumed power when his father died, said in the days following Syria's suspension, "if I was in his [Assad's] shoes, I would step down". A bold statement by a ruler whose own country was subject to pro-democracy protests earlier this year.

Despite it not being near the Gulf, Jordan, an important ally to the US and Israel, was invited to join the Gulf Cooperation Council earlier this year. So too was Morocco, the Arab country furthest from the Gulf, but another US-backed Arab state headed by an iron-fisted monarch.

All this indicates that the GCC is consolidating its power and fast becoming a superpower the dominant force within the Arab League. This was clear when the Algerian foreign minister tried to question the legality of suspending Syria from the Arab League and was reportedly warned by his Qatari counterpart: "Stop defending Syria, because when your turn comes you may need us!"

Led by US allies whose heads of state have never appeared on any ballot, the GCC is trying to decide which uprisings will "succeed" (e.g. Libya, Syria) and which won't (e.g. Bahrain, Yemen). If Assad, an ally of Iran who has long been at odds with Gulf nations like Saudi Arabia, is to be overthrown the GCC and its supporters in the US will have little opposition left within the Arab League.

Of course ultimately, whether or not the regime in Syria stays or goes will be decided upon by people in Syria forced to live under its rule. And after nine months of regular street demonstrations across the country in which thousands of unarmed demonstrators have reportedly been killed, calls for foreign solidarity and assistance shouldn't come as a surprise.

But if it's not only the toppling the regime that protesters in Syria are after, but the establishment of a democratic and independent government, then the next battle they'll face will likely not be alongside the Arab League, but against it.

Matthew Cassel is a journalist and photographer based in the Middle East. His website is

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect al-Akhbar's editorial policy.


"Of course ultimately, whether or not the regime in Syria stays or goes will be decided upon by people in Syria forced to live under its rule."

Really? Was it decided by Libyans or by NATO and their local puppets, including AL?

AL is not only helper of NATO/Israel in the ME, so I would not be so blissfully blind. One NATO/GCC "revolution" in Libya is one too many.

And, of course, Egypt and Libya are both NOT ruled by democracy, to put it mildly.

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