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Two-Faced Arab League Losing Ground

by Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa Al-Omrani

CAIRO - As the Cairo-based Arab League continues to back western military intervention in support of the popular rebellion in Libya, the League's failure to back similar uprisings in other Arab countries - most notably Bahrain - has led to charges of double standards.

Pakistanis rally in favor of people of Bahrain in Karachi, Pakistan on Sunday, April 17, 2011. Bahrain imposed martial law March 15 to crush the Shiite-led uprising. Hundreds of protesters, political leaders, human rights activists and Shiite professionals like doctors and lawyers, have been detained. (AP Photo/Fareed Khan) "From the very beginning, the League has adopted conflicting positions vis-à-vis the popular revolts now rocking the Arab world," Walid Hassan, international law professor at Alexandria's Pharos University told IPS. "While it supports the Libyan people against the Gaddafi regime, it is overtly backing oppressive regimes elsewhere, especially in the Gulf."

In early March, shortly after Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi began violently cracking down on anti- government protesters, the Arab League suspended Libya's league membership. The only other time an Arab state has had its membership revoked was when Egypt was expelled from the 22-state organization in the late 1970s after signing the Camp David peace agreement with Israel (Egypt was later readmitted to the League in 1989.)

On Mar. 12, with the Gaddafi regime using increasingly violent methods to quell the burgeoning uprising, the League requested that the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) impose a no-fly zone over Libya to protect civilians from air attack. Five days later, the UNSC adopted Resolution 1973, authorising the international community to establish a no-fly zone and use "all means necessary short of foreign occupation" to protect the civilian populace.

Since Mar. 19, the western-led NATO alliance has launched a series of air-strikes against forces loyal to Gaddafi. Nevertheless, fierce fighting continues to rage - accompanied by a steadily rising death-toll - between pro- and anti-regime forces.

The Arab League, however, has adopted entirely different positions on uprisings elsewhere in the region. It failed to intervene, for example, in the twin revolutions earlier this year that led to the toppling of Tunisian president Zein Al-Abidine bin Ali and Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.

Nor has the organization intervened on the side of anti-regime protesters in Bahrain and Yemen, both of which have seen several weeks of popular unrest. Far from backing Bahraini protesters against the regime of King Hamad bin Eissa Al-Khalifa, the League endorsed the entry of Saudi and Emirati troops into the kingdom on Mar. 15 - within the context of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)-backed "Gulf Shield" initiative - to support Al-Khalifa.

On Mar. 22, the League issued a statement confirming "the legitimacy of the entry of Gulf Shield forces into Bahrain based on the joint security agreement between GCC members."

Dozens of protesters have been killed and scores injured in Bahrain since anti-government demonstrations, demanding an end to the rule of the Al-Khalifa dynasty, first began on Feb. 14.

According to Egyptian political observers, the Arab League's conflicting positions are largely explained by Saudi Arabia's longstanding influence over the pan-Arab organization.

"States of the Saudi-led GCC finance most of the Arab League's activities," Abdelhalim Kandil, political analyst and editor-in-chief of independent weekly Al-Sout Al-Umma told IPS. "Therefore, the league is subject to disproportionate Saudi influence.

"The Saudi regime, fearing for its own stability, has consistently opposed the Arab uprisings," he added. "Riyadh hosted Tunisia's Ben Ali after his ouster; pressured Egypt's transitional government not to prosecute Mubarak; continues to support President Ali Abdullah Sallah in Yemen; and, most flagrantly, sent troops to support the Bahraini monarchy."

Hassan agreed, saying that the League's position on Libya versus those on other rebellion-racked Arab states has served to confirm the "overriding Saudi influence" over League decisions.

"Saudi Arabia, fearing the spread of the revolution to the rest of the Gulf, has been staunchly against the uprisings from the outset," he said. But Libya proved the exception, Hassan believes, due to the "longstanding rift" between Gaddafi and Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz.

"Acrimony between the two leaders even led to accusations by Saudi Arabia in 2004 that Gaddafi had plotted Abdullah's assassination," said Hassan. "This, along with Gaddafi's murderous assaults on his own people, allowed Saudi Arabia to mobilise the Arab League against the Libyan regime."

According to Kandil, Saudi Arabia has played a chief role in turning the Arab League in recent years into a "bastion of U.S. influence" lacking any "effective or constructive" role in the region.

"Washington's Arab allies, especially Saudi Arabia and Egypt, had long used the League to legitimize U.S. policy in the Middle East," he said. "As was the case with the 2003 U.S.-led war on Iraq, the west used Saudi's leading role in the League to obtain a resolution allowing it to use military force against Libya."

On Wednesday, the League announced the postponement of an Arab Summit scheduled to convene in Baghdad in mid-May. The move came as a response to the Iraqi government's sharp criticism of the recent deployment of Saudi troops to Bahrain.

"The decision to delay the summit suggests that Saudi, along with other GCC states, is still trying to maintain its influence over the direction of the League," said Kandil.

But in light of rapidly unfolding political realities, Kandil believes this influence to be waning.

"In the past, regional policies were largely determined by an axis consisting of the U.S. and Israel on one hand, and Egypt and Saudi Arabia on the other, with the former two using the latter two to implement their policies," he said. "But in the revolutionary atmosphere now pervading the Arab world, this era appears to be coming to a close."

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