The League of Arab Societies

It’s high time for a new Arab League -- one that reflects and supports the rising (and struggling) wave of liberals across the Middle East and North Africa.


Amid disheartening news from across the Arab world, one of the few pleasant surprises has been the reinvigorated Arab League. Since the outbreak of revolution last year, the league has conferred legitimacy on the NATO-led campaign to oust Muammar al-Qaddafi, helped coax Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh out of power, and assisted Europe and the United States in applying pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to resign. At a time when Egypt, mired in domestic strife, no longer plays a leadership role in the neighborhood, the Arab League has demonstrated that a pan-Arab coalition can serve a useful function.

But the region’s defining challenge for years to come — how to build the foundation for democracy over the fault lines of tribe, sect, ethnicity, and ideology — requires a different form of transnational leadership. The Arab League remains largely an assembly of autocrats who exploit the divisions within their societies to cling to power. Even the fledgling democracies among its member states have begun to use the same old cynical tactics with their populations. Egypt’s post-Mubarak junta is prosecuting foreign and local NGO workers on bogus conspiracy charges, and Arab heads of state have been silent. Despite having assisted the international community in Libya, Syria, and Yemen, the League has not discussed the future of these states’ political development. Nor will it: Arab leaders won’t press for democratic reforms in other countries that they are unwilling to take on themselves.

While the league should continue to serve as a policy platform for Arab heads of state, the region also needs a transnational body that speaks for the aspirations of civil society activists and reformists — and the tens of millions of people who stand to benefit from efforts to fight corruption, stem extremism, provide electoral transparency, and build institutions to serve women and the working class. Call it a "League of Arab Societies." This organization should draw inspiration from the region’s most successful transnational institution in recent memory: The Muslim World League (MWL), an umbrella organization headquartered in Saudi Arabia that drew together the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafi clerics, and jihadists to fight secular dictatorships.

Founded in 1962 and still active today, the MWL advanced the pan-Islamist ideal of a region organized by a framework of Islamic law. The venture represents an impressive marriage of pragmatism and idealism. The MWL’s constituent groups used friendly Saudi terrain to plan and coordinate their activism, endowing mosques with funding and ideological literature and pumping resources into a network of charitable organizations. They fostered an agile political strategy: Where Arab leaders sought an ally in the struggle against communists and socialists, the MWL was there to help. When the United States sought an ally in its struggle against the Soviets, the MWL brought together the infamous team of Islamist groups that fought and flourished in Afghanistan.

It may seem strange to recommend that a liberally oriented "League of Arab Societies" model itself after an organization that nurtured Islamist groups — including jihadists who violently turned on their backers and the West. But Islamist parties committed to nonviolent activism are now poised to shape the future of Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and perhaps Syria and Yemen. These parties, which often share an agenda consonant with the MWL’s founding principles, also owe a debt of gratitude to that group. This may not be good news from a liberal point of view — but it is a validation of the Islamists’ transnational model.

We should appropriate this model to serve a new, liberal agenda — one that would stand in stark contrast to the situation region-wide only a few years ago. In 2003, many of the region’s reformists and civil society activists hoped that a post-Saddam Iraq could serve as a home base for Arab liberalism, just like Saudi Arabia had long served the cause of Islamism. They did not look to the Arab League for support in this endeavor — member states were sharply divided over how to engage postwar Iraq diplomatically and economically, let alone get involved in civil-society promotion. Instead of facilitating regional initiatives by Arab liberals on Iraqi soil, the United States adopted a laissez-faire attitude toward Iraq’s domestic politics, enabling Arab liberalism’s greatest foes to mold the country.

But Arab liberals then were more timid than they are today: Islamism had become the virtually undisputed language by which Arab masses expressed their frustration, and many liberals had made the crucial mistake of seeking common ground with dictators like Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. Islamists, having achieved control of mosques from the Red Sea to Morocco’s Atlantic shores, had consecrated a space for themselves to transmit their ideas and connect with followers. But in a dramatically changed Middle East, Islamism may come to represent authority and imposition rather than disaffection and aspiration. If this happens, the region’s disaffected majorities will seek a new set of ideas by which to express their aspirations. Witness Tehran, a city of Islamist domination, where young people dream of liberalism and Islamic reform. As the pendulum swings in many Arab capitals, liberals will have the opportunity to inform this new agenda. A transnational umbrella could equip them with needed resources and create a network to protect them — providing practical and logistical support and, where necessary, security.

The natural constituent groups for a League of Arab Societies are the liberal organizations, parties, and intellectual circles that have been struggling, in isolation, to gain ground in their home countries. Politicians like Egyptian dissident Ayman Nour, together with the "Tomorrow" party he founded, have already been featured in the West. Arab NGOs devoted to women’s issues, labor rights, human rights, rule of law promotion, and civics education have long been on the radar screens of American and European foundations. There are also dozens of liberal voices that deserve institutional backing and a regional network. In Tunisia, Ulfa Yusuf, a charismatic female scholar of Islamic studies, has developed a liberal interpretation of Islamic history that radically diverges from the views of the ruling Islamist Ennahda party. Lebanese scholar and activist Chibli Mallat has built a following around a new political philosophy, dubbed "White Arabism," that marries liberal democracy to Arab nationalism. And even in Saudi Arabia, "Saudi Liberals" — a virtual, online consortium of thousands of college students, young professionals, and journalists — envision a cultural and political alternative to Wahhabism. Most of these figures and groups did not rise to prominence during last year’s revolutions because they concern themselves with long-term, and not immediate, transformation.

A League of Arab Societies could nurture these groups in valuable ways — allying with foreign and local powers as needed to win advantages for them and confronting such powers when necessary to protect their interests. Moreover, Saudi-backed precedent demonstrates that a provisional partnership with the United States need not be the kiss of death for such an organization.

Who would back and host such an organization? Some oil-rich states, such as Qatar, have begun to support liberal causes that diverge politically from ideas about governance that have long held sway in the Gulf. Wealthy financial institutions such as Jordan’s Arab Bank and billionaire investors such as Saudi Arabia’s Waleed bin Talal have become more active in backing Arab political figures. American and European foundations have poured billions into Arab reform initiatives in cooperation with regimes that no longer exist — and now seek a more effective strategy, less reliant on Arab governments, to advance their values in the region. In all likelihood, the best financial base for a League of Arab Societies is no one party, power, or petro-endowment, but an investor coalition that includes all of the above. As for a suitable location, a country such as Morocco could offer stability and continuity, as well as a social environment in which civil society groups have been steadily growing in strength.

For all its faults, the Muslim World League taught us that meaningful change is both transnational and multigenerational. The Arab League has taught us that transnational cooperation can provide vital support to Arab populations struggling internally against oppression. But it’s time for a new, liberal regional grouping that can embrace and foster the dynamic changes across the Middle East and North Africa. Yes, progress will be gradual, but we must take whatever steps we can to accelerate that progress.

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