The Arab League Summit 2012

When the Arab League convenes this week, it will meet in a constitutional democracy, Iraq, and will include a former Tunisian human rights activist, Moncef Marzouki, among its assembled heads of state. These are two of the least remarkable facts reflecting the rapid assimilation of democratic norms into the League and its member states over the past year.

In March 2004, the Arab Summit then scheduled in Tunis was cancelled at the last minute after acrimonious disagreements erupted between the governments over how to deal with the issue of democratic reform. A declaration issued at the rescheduled meeting two months later committed the Arab leaders “To endeavor…to pursue reform and modernization in our countries, and to keep pace with the rapid world changes, by consolidating the democratic practice.” For the first time, the “D” word had appeared in an Arab League declaration, albeit as an adjective. But of course, this provision of the summit declaration proved as operative as the first provision, on the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

A more meaningful shift began last March when, faced with Qaddafi’s threats of brutality against his rebellious citizenry, the foreign ministers of Arab League states called for a no-fly zone and affirmed the need “to ensure of the right of the Libyan people to fulfill their demands and build their own future and institutions in a democratic framework” (yes, it was an adjective again). Since then, the League pushed its recognition of democracy and human rights norms even further, imposing collective sanctions on Syria, one of its founding members, to protest the Syrian regime’s brutal suppression of its own citizens. Said Qatari Prime Minister Hamid bin Jassem in announcing the sanctions last November, “Power means nothing if you are the enemy of your own people.”

By next year’s summit, at least five of the League’s members will have prime ministers who emerged through democratic elections. How will the expansion of democratic practice among League members—and the League’s embrace of popular sovereignty as the basis for legitimacy—affect the organization’s future?

In separate pieces, Khaled Elgindy examines the prospects for the League’s new diplomatic energy to produce payoffs on some longstanding challenges. In another piece published in The National Interest, Ken Pollack examines what it means for Iraq to host the Arab League summit, nine years after Saddam’s fall and eight years after that first post-Saddam summit ended in acrimony over the “D” word.