For the first time since its founding in 1969 the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) has held a summit in Egypt. Already saddled with its own internal challenges, Egypt must now lead the 56-member organisation for the next three years. Contrary to its principles, OIC summits are seldom ever overwhelmed by participation from its leaders. On this occasion, though, 26 heads of state came to Cairo. That, by its own standards, is an achievement of sorts.
Seen from another angle, this turn out reflects the huge pressures the OIC is now under. Either it becomes an effective force that fulfils the aspirations of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims who it claims to represent, or it faces oblivion as an irrelevance.
Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, the outgoing secretary general, was spot-on when he said that some of the member states are today passing through the most delicate period in their history which, for many, started at the end of the First World War. From the ruins of that war, the foundations were laid for a new order that eventually gave rise to settler rule and dictatorships across the region.
That era is now fast coming to an end. Everywhere people are demanding participatory government, respect for the rule of law, equality in rights and duties and peaceful rotation of government through the ballot and not the bullet. To this extent, the theme of the summit – ‘The Muslim World: New Challenges and Expanding Opportunities’ – embodies existing realities.
Not all the challenges are new however. The OIC was founded as a direct response to a Zionist arson attack on Al-Aqsa Mosque in August 1969. Since then, the organisation has failed to stop Israel’s desecration of Islamic sanctuaries in Jerusalem.
Despite this shortcoming, the OIC has, in recent years, made some notable efforts in support of Palestine. Without its dogged insistence, the world community would not have commissioned the UN’s Goldstone Inquiry into Israel’s aggression on Gaza in 2008-09. Palestine’s accession as a non-member state at the UN was also an achievement that came about not only as a result of its diplomacy but also because the OIC had canvassed Islamic countries to support its bid.
Although Palestine remains at the top of the organisation’s agenda and will certainly remain so for as long as it is occupied, there are other urgent issues; ending the bloody carnage in Syria and restoring normality to Mali are also priorities.
On the latter challenge, the summit’s official support for a political solution did not disguise divisions concerning the French intervention. Given the way previous interventions had ignited or aggravated regional, ethnic and sectarian tensions in Afghanistan and Iraq, there is, understandably, deep suspicion about western involvement in Mali. Notwithstanding this, the out-going Senegalese OIC chair made it clear to the conference that his country welcomed and supported the French efforts in the country. No such endorsement was mentioned in the summit’s final communiqué.
Furthermore, to its credit the OIC has promoted internal trade between member countries, which was valued at $690 billion in 2011. In addition, it has offered significant humanitarian assistance for countries stricken by natural disasters.
For all it’s worth though, the organisation is yet to become effective in handling the big political issues. Today a growing number of member-states are gripped by political turmoil, while Muslim minorities in other countries are the victims of massacres and Islamophobic campaigns. The tragedy of the Rohingya people in Myanmar (Burma) stands out markedly. Thus far, attempts to mediate with the authorities in Rangoon have been unsuccessful.
On Syria, a meeting between presidents Morsi, Ahmadinejad and Abdullah Gul at the Cairo summit failed to yield any optimism. The elephant in the room which stood between them and a political formula was clearly the sectarian beast. Iran’s unwavering support for the Assad regime is consistent with that given to Iraq. In both countries, Sunni Muslims blame Iran for their persecution.
So what might the OIC agenda under Egypt’s leadership look like in the coming months? Israel’s continued aggression in Jerusalem will no doubt be high on the list of priorities. Equally, President Morsi will have to develop a plan to stop the blood-letting in Syria. However contentious it may be, Egypt recognises that a political solution in Syria requires Iranian support for regime change.
As the new chair of the OIC, Egypt will have to rise above partisan interests to secure those of its members. Relations between Cairo and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have been troubled since the overthrow of the Mubarak regime and the ascendency of the Muslim Brotherhood as a major political force in the region. Suspicions and recriminations abound. The Gulf State is itself locked in a protracted dispute with its powerful neighbour, Iran, over the islands of Abu Musa and the Tunbs, Greater and Lesser. So far the official line is encouraging. Foreign Minister Muhammad Kamil Amrou said as much; Egypt has always regarded and will continue to view the national security of the Gulf States as part of its own national security.
Finally, the OIC under Egypt’s chairmanship must spare no effort to realise the dream of its outgoing secretary general, which is to have a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Since it represents more than 1.5 billion people around the world, there is no reason why it shouldn’t. Having a seat is not enough though. The Security Council’s 20th century mechanism can no longer ensure “effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression.” Palestine and Syria have shown this. Only when this is achieved will it become easier to implement the ambitious statements from summits like Cairo.