What is going on with the Arab League?


The Arab League imposed surprisingly tough economic sanctions on Syria today after it refused to allow in monitors to oversee a peace agreement reached a few weeks ago.  It is tempting to say that this is the most commendable action the organization has taken since its founding in 1945.  The building housing the Arab League headquarters is just off Tahrir Square in Cairo and it seems the members have been looking out the windows: the sanctions come in response to the Syrian crackdown on protests but the action is, itself, a welcome byproduct of the revolutions that have swept the region this year.

A decade ago, the League was so toothless and ineffectual that when Hosni Mubarak wanted to end the career of his ambitious and popular foreign minister Amr Moussa he shipped him off to run the organization and claimed it was a promotion.  Meaningful action by the League was always constrained by the political structure of its twenty-two member states — they interpret ‘Arab’ fairly loosely, so the League includes Djibouti, Somalia and Comoros along with the more expected members — which, until quite recently, was a motley collection of kingdoms and military dictatorships, long on privilege and short on responsive governance.

Now, though, an element of accountability has been introduced into this political equation and the Syria sanctions are the first demonstration of it.  True, economic sanctions are almost always ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst and one can expect the Syrian leaders will be the last people in the country to starve.  True, too, some of the members’ motivations are hardly pure: for many (like the Saudis) the Syrians lie on the other side of an anti-Iran alignment within the region, so aiding the protests can be regarded as a cover — if the League ever gets it together to sanctions the Saudis for their undemocratic policies we’ll know the organization has truly found religion.  But in truth the United Nations, for all its declared political principles, tends to be moved to action for similarly unedifying reasons.  For the Arab League, what is most unusual is that in a region traditionally hostile to public protest these Syria sanctions, whatever the motivation, have established a precedent that will be difficult — or, anyway, at least embarrassing — to walk away from in future.  That’s how change comes.


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