The horrific explosion that struck Beirut port on 4 August resulted in a comprehensive humanitarian catastrophe that spread across the entire Lebanese capital, with 200 people killed and a further 6,000 wounded. Apart from the destruction at the port, thousands of buildings, public facilities and houses were damaged and destroyed, resulting in the displacement of 300,000 people. All of this happened during the worst political and economic crises that Lebanon has ever experienced. The explosion is also likely to signal the end of the Arab League and the argument about the “Arab system”.
Lebanon was one of the seven politically independent founder states of the Arab League in March 1945. It has never abandoned its commitment to Arab causes in all circumstances, for which it has paid dearly. Today we need to understand what is happening to Lebanon now in the wake of the tragic incident.
The first move after the blast came not from Cairo, where the Arab League is based, nor from its Secretary General, nor from any of the League’s members. It came from Paris and the French President, Emmanuel Macron, who contacted his Lebanese counterpart Michel Aoun. Macron was in Beirut the very next day. He inspected the explosion site then walked through the streets of Beirut, meeting local people and making promises to stand by the Lebanese directly to help them get through the ordeal. Moreover, he told them that he would mobilise international support for their country. He then met with Lebanese politicians.
Back in Paris, Macron organised a conference for donor countries which pledged more than $308 million; Qatar contributed $40 million and Kuwait $50 million on their own initiative. Some Arab and Muslim countries provided urgent humanitarian relief.
Meanwhile, a very important development occurred when the momentum of the popular protests spawned a petition which called for France to take control of Lebanon again. The petition attracted almost 36,000 signatures.
Away from the swift accusations of treachery and nostalgia for colonialism, it is worth pausing for a minute and trying to understand why people would feel so bitter and frustrated that they would happily go back to being a colonised nation. Of course, those who signed the petition know very well that there is no way that the French mandate could be revived, and so nobody would take their request seriously.
However, it was not aimed at President Macron, but primarily at the Lebanese political forces burdening Lebanon and its people and leading them into the ongoing economic, political and social crises. It sent a message that the politicians should step down, and that “everyone means everyone”. This political class has reached such a low level that even foreign colonialism would be better.
The message was also addressed, with equal harshness and clarity, to the Arab system and the Arab League in Cairo. It called the League’s very existence into question; what is the point of having such an organisation given all of the catastrophes and disasters witnessed by the Arab world while it stands idly by and does nothing other than release meaningless statements? A glance at the absurd situation of the Arab world and a quick search for the role played by this dinosaur of an organisation is telling.In Syria, the state has been destroyed and over half of its population have either been killed, wounded, arrested, displaced or turned into refugees. International forces are fighting over the country, including the Americans, Russians and Europeans, as well as regional forces such as Iran, Turkey and the militias of multiple nationalities and affiliations. In the middle of all of this, Israel announced its [illegal] annexation of the occupied Syrian Golan Heights. Where is the Arab League? What is it doing?
In Yemen, a brutal war has entered its sixth year. The parties involved are an Arab coalition and Yemenis, also Arabs, and there is Iranian interference. The country is being divided and its people are suffering the worst humanitarian catastrophe in the world. What is the Arab League doing about it?
Libya has two governments, two armies, a civil conflict, mercenaries and militias, and international and regional forces on its soil. The capabilities of the people are on the verge of being lost forever. Where is the Arab League?
The whole Arab world is riddled with problems, from Iraq and the Gulf to Morocco. The Arab League is neither seen nor heard in any of this.
While we can ask what the organisation is doing to help the Arab people, we must also ask where the Arab system is, and what is it doing. Apart from a few individual initiatives, what is “the Arab nation” doing about any and all of these issues? This is where the bitter message from Lebanon is coming from; the petition for President Macron to return the French mandate is the final call for the Arabs, their “nation” and its system, and especially the Arab League, to step up to the mark and do something. I am not confident that the people or the organisation will do anything.
More than 75 years ago, the head of the Lebanese Constitutional Bloc at the time, Bechara El-Khoury, attended the first meeting held to discuss the establishment of the Arab League; it was called by Egyptian Prime Minister Mostafa El-Nahhas Pasha, in 1944. Today, the last call is being issued from Lebanon, sounding the organisation’s death knell. The Arab League is facing the final curtain.
This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Araby Al-Jadeed on 13 August 2020
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.