PR diplomacy

By Salama A Salama / Al Ahram Weekly

Having lost any sense of direction, Arab diplomacy is becoming an exercise in public relations. We encounter threats and manoeuvres on the international scene, and we respond by whimpering, thinking about it, then giving in. And for some reason, we’re pleased when international meetings end up in nothing, aside from the usual praise for the wisdom of our leaders and the vitality of our role. That our importance is eroding all the time doesn’t seem to matter much.

The world is offering us a taste of popular diplomacy. This is the kind of diplomacy you get when highly educated people, normally fluent in Arabic, give you lip service to keep you happy while actually promoting their own interests. Take, for example, the US, a country that knows how much hatred it has generated in the region through its actions in Iraq and its support to Israel’s policy in Lebanon and Palestine. The US is sending Arabists to massage our ego. We get visits from officials who are highly articulate about the region, know every detail of our political and economic life, and are willing to engage any party in dialogue. And what they offer us is the usual policies, but with a sugar coating of economic aid, intelligence information, and the occasional promise of freedom and democracy.

In response, we plead and petition. We ask for the implementation of long- forgotten international decisions. We demand the revival of old promises. And then we hold more talks. Over the past few years, the Quartet held endless meetings concerning the region. We hosted countless summits in Sharm El-Sheikh and Cairo. What came out of it?

The recent spat in Egyptian-US relations was quite interesting. The Americans were displeased with us, so they decided to slash $200 million in aid. So we sent our foreign minister to Washington for “strategic” talks. During the talks, the minister told the Americans that they would be risking the wrath of the Egyptian public if they went ahead and cut back the aid. That’s a good one. It’s as if the Americans are not aware that the Egyptians are an oppressed nation and that their wrath is the last thing anyone should worry about. So the whole discussion is postponed to September, perhaps when the Quartet convenes once more.

Egypt has a problem in Gaza. Thanks to US and Israeli policies, Gaza and the West Bank have separated. Now President Mahmoud Abbas is a pawn in a US game that may end up with Jordan controlling the West Bank. Should this happen, Egypt would be stuck with a besieged Gaza on its borders. Already, tragedy is unfolding on the Egyptian side of Rafah. Thousands of Palestinians are marooned, trying to cross back home. Everyday, more of them fall sick.
Everyday, the frustration mounts. We don’t even have enough forces in place to handle the situation. The number of Egyptian troops on the border is subject to Israel’s consent, according to peace agreements. So here you have it. Israel is not letting the Palestinians through, and it isn’t allowing Egypt to increase its troop numbers.

The situation in Gaza is disastrous for Egypt’s domestic scene. Recent reports speak of a network of Al-Qaeda operatives that has been exposed, but not before its ringleader escaped to Gaza. There is no way of knowing how true that story is, but it is worrisome. It is also further proof that we’re on the wrong diplomatic trail. Our PR diplomacy is not working. And yet you hear that the Egyptian and Jordanian foreign ministers are going to Israel soon. What exactly do they intend to discuss? And what do we plan to do about Gaza?
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