DAMASCUS - The "Arab Family" was due to hold its 21st summit on Monday in Doha.
But Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's decision not to show up - made late on
Saturday - has put a damper on the hopes of Arab and Western observers.
Not only has Mubarak - the second-longest Arab leader in office after Libyan
leader Muammar Gaddafi - decided not to attend, but in his place he has sent a
low-key official rather than the prime minister or the foreign minister.
In some ways, Mubarak is snubbing the Arab family, throwing sand in the eyes of
the Qataris by intentionally trying to drown a summit that Doha wants to be a
success. Because of the weight that Egypt carries, Mubarak feels that he can
get away with it and
obstruct any resolutions made in Doha vis-a-vis the future of Hamas-controlled
If anything, this is testimony to how deep the divisions are between Egypt and
Qatar, partly over the latter's decision to invite Iranian President Mahmud
Ahmadinejad to the summit. While Egypt supports the West Bank government of the
pro-Western Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas, Qatar is allied with Syria and
Iran behind the Hamas-led government in Gaza.
Hours before the summit started, a total of nine Arab leaders, headed by
Mubarak, were expected to boycott the conference, for a variety of reasons. The
one common factor was Iran. Many have said that this will be the lowest turnout
for any Arab summit since they were first held - ironically in Egypt - in 1946.
The same was said of the Damascus summit in 2008, where 11 Arab leaders showed
up, minus Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Only 10 leaders showed up at the
Beirut summit of 2002, and another 10 at the Sharm al-Sheikh summit of 2003.
Only 12 came to Sudan in 2006, while the highest turnout was in Saudi Arabia in
2007, when 17 Arab leaders came.
This is not the first time that Egypt has failed to attend a summit, whereas
Syria has boycotted only one, in 1970, to protest the war between Jordan and
the Palestinians, known to historians as "Black September". In 2008, Egypt
snubbed the Arab summit in Damascus in protest at rising tension between Saudi
Arabia and Syria over the latter's support for Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Then, and again in 2009, Egyptian dailies - both official and semi-official -
slammed both Damascus and Doha for advancing the interests of Iran in the Arab
world. Bridges were partially mended between Mubarak and President Bashar
al-Assad of Syria when both leaders held a mini-summit in Riyadh in early
March. Mubarak, however, was clearly unimpressed at being forced to muzzle his
differences with Syria.
They were differences by proxy, however, over Syria's support of Iran and its
differences with Saudi Arabia. What annoyed the aging Egyptian leader, who is
81 next May, was Syria and Qatar's stance on the Gaza war of December
Mubarak was furious with the seizure of Gaza by Hamas in 2007. When Israel
decided to attack the Islamic group late last year he saw it as a blessing in
disguise, feelings which were in stark contrast to the rising anger on the
Egyptian street. Mubarak felt that if Hamas won the war he would no longer
share borders with Palestine, but with Iran, due to Hamas' relationship with
Tehran. He felt that if Hamas survived, Iran would get the upper hand and
threaten Egypt in its advance of what he calls "a Shi'ite threat" to Sunni
countries in the Arab world.
Egypt and Iran have not been on good terms since the latter's 1979 Islamic
revolution. Before that, Cairo was close to Tehran, with the royal families of
both countries inter-married and both the shah and the Egyptian monarchy
staunch allies of the West. Cairo was furious at the toppling of the shah in
1979, and over Iran's praise for the Islamic fundamentalists who murdered
former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in 1981.
Iran continues to name a street in honor of Sadat's assassin, Khalid
Islambouli, while Egypt continues to enrage Iran by referring to the Persian
Gulf as the "Arab Gulf". In the 1950s, Egypt's late president Gamal Abdul
Nasser would infuriate Iranians by threatening to conquer Iran's Khuzestan
province - which he called Arabstan. While these differences are seemingly
mild, or "historical", they remain deep-rooted in Egyptian officialdom, as Iran
has refused to apologize or establish normal diplomatic relations with Cairo.
More recently, the real fear in Egypt is of Iran's ambitions in the Arab world.
Last month, a senior Iranian official made remarks that threatened the
sovereignty of Bahrain - sending shockwaves through Cairo, which then lobbied
its African ally, Morocco, to cut off diplomatic relations with Tehran. Egypt
regards itself as a heavyweight in the Arab world and said that it if did have
an embassy in Tehran it would have closed it.
Egypt is scared by Hamas as it is a product of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood,
the region's most influential opposition movement. A victory for Hamas could
certainly enflame emotions of the Egyptian Brotherhood and could spark a revolt
from within. In 2005, when Egypt's ambassador to Iraq was kidnapped and then
murdered, semi-official Egyptian dailies pointed the finger at Iran. The media
argued that the Islamic republic did not want Arabs to have any presence in
Baghdad as they wished to keep it as Iran's own sphere of influence.
Due to all of these problems, Egypt is afraid of Tehran, and remains upset with
countries like Syria and Qatar which are allied to it. Egypt feels that these
nations are dividing the Arab world and should be firmly supporting Egypt.
Qatar argues that due to Iran's influence over non-state players like Hamas and
Hezbollah, which are the root of the Arab world's current differences, it is
only logical that Iran would be present at the Arab summit, even though it is a
Egypt is doing itself a disservice, the nations argue, by placing itself in the
awkward position of forcing the nations to choose between it or Iran. At a
deeper level, one might also notice displeasure in Egypt over the rapprochement
between Saudi Arabia and Syria, arguing that this leaves Egypt isolated in its
cold war battle with Iran.
Jordan is also a country that is currently dissatisfied with Qatar, but its
King Abdullah II will soon be coming to Doha, believing that political
differences can be settled through dialogue. Two weeks ago, Qatar's al-Jazeera
TV broadcast a talk by veteran Egyptian political journalist Mohammad Hasanein
Haykal, who has accused Jordan's late King Hussein of having been on the
payroll of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for 20 years. Haykal, who
knew Hussein from when he assumed his throne in 1952, and until his death in
1999, claimed that Hussein received US$1 million in funding from the CIA from
1956, which was discontinued when president Jimmy Carter came to the White
Haykal has also slammed the late Jordanian king for having "tricked" Egyptian
president Gamal Abdul Nasser during the Arab-Israeli war of 1967. He said that
although Hussein claimed he wanted to help the Arabs fight Israel, he had
actually been conducting secret talks with the Israelis since the 1950s. Haykal
claimed that Hussein had met face-to-face with Israelis for "1,000 hours" prior
to signing the Jordanian-Israeli peace agreement in 1994.
But Jordan has shown a wise attitude by attending the Doha summit. As of Monday
morning, it has been confirmed that other heavyweights like Syria's Bashar
al-Assad, Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, Libya's Gaddafi, and Yemen's Ali
Abdullah Saleh, would attend. Probably because of the invitation to Iran,
neither Morocco nor Bahrain will be there, in addition to Egypt. That makes it
probable that three countries will not be attending at the presidential or
monarchial level, in addition to Iraq, which will be represented by Prime
Minister Nuri al-Maliki rather than President Jalal Talabani.
The world's attention is more focused on the attendance of Sudan President Omar
al-Bashir, who will be the star of Doha. Bashir landed in Doha on March 29,
despite the arrest warrant issued for him by the International Criminal Court
(ICC) on March 4 for war crimes.
This month, he paid visits to several African countries - including Egypt - to
show the world that he is undaunted by the ICC's warrant. Many believed that
Qatar would use its influence with the Sudanese leader to ask him not to
attend, so he would not compromise the position of the Arab League. Clearly,
that did not work and al-Bashir will be spending two days at the Sheraton Hotel
in Doha, defiantly sitting opposite United Nations secretary general Ban
The Arab street will use the Sudan issue to make themselves heard, rallying
around Bashir during his difficult moment. They did the same when Palestinian
leader Yasser Arafat was besieged at his compound in Ramallah during the Beirut
summit of 2002 and in response to Saddam Hussein's arrest and execution. This
will manifest itself in words and catchy slogans, as the Arab street considers
Bashir's warrant part of a series of targeted insults at Arab leaders. But they
were incapable of helping Arafat and Saddam with anything more than words, and
simply came out with thundering statements in their favor while they were
hunted by the Israeli and American war machines. Today, the same stands for
Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine.