Blessed Are the Peacemakers in the Arab World's Deeply Divided Societies

February 1, 2014

By Roger Owen

At this time of fierce divisions within most Arab societies there seems little space for those who try to seek to bring the sides together, especially in those countries wracked by all-out civil war. So it has given me particular pleasure to see the comforting face of Lakhdar Brahimi in the news again, a man who, even at the age of eighty, is still pursuing the path of peace and reconciliation as the joint Arab League and United Nations Special Envoy for Syria, against all the odds and in spite of a seemingly never-ending series of problems, road-blocks, and difficulties.

I first met Lakhdar when he was the Algerian ambassador to the United Kingdom in the 1970s, a post which, unlike most of the other London-based ambassadors, he was using to widen his own experience of British society while acquainting a significant spectrum of its citizens with what was going on in his own. So it was that he came to Oxford University to speak at a seminar I had organized to discuss the legacy of the recently-deceased President Gamal Abdal Nasser, a man he had got to know well during his time as the National Liberation Front’s representative in Cairo. It was a memorable performance, not only in terms of what he had to say but also of the care and precision with which he said it. Rare too among public figures was the consideration he gave to his young audience in terms of his willingness to listen courteously to their questions and to discuss.

Now, over forty years later, Lakhdar Brahimi remains a hugely impressive figure, using his long experience to pursue the almost impossible task of finding a bit of common ground here, a willingness to make a small compromise there. Beginning with the delegations in separate room. Then, too briefly, with everyone together. Step by step. Shepherding the parties along. Always patient. Always with a display of quiet optimism. And quick to remind everyone that going too slowly may, in the end, be better than going too fast. 
Indeed, I can easily imagine that his words and actions will be taken by future peacemakers to provide both a program and a set of practices to guide them through similar attempts to bring enemies together in equally highly-charged situations elsewhere. Focusing on procedural issues first. Then building on small and tentative measures like aid convoys and prisoner exchanges to create some small momentum, in the hope of establishing some small measure of trust.

Not, of course, that he is the only peacemaker in the field. Nor should we forget the courageous work of those men and women who risk their lives to help others; for example, the brave members of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent Society. And not, of course, that he is bound to succeed. Indeed, as far as I can tell from a distance, the fragile peace process seems to have slid back almost to square one, with Ambassador Brahimi now forced to make further concessions to the Asad government to get it even to participate in a further round of talks later this month.

Yet hope demands that there must be an alternative way forward, not only to end the killing but also to provide the country, its battered population and, most of all, its children some hope of a better future. Consider too what is going on in some of Syria’s neighbors where hope is also in very short supply. There is an Egypt with an ex-President in court but silenced in his glass cage. And with a new, power-hungry, military president, General Sisi, newly elevated to Field Marshall, waiting in the wings. And what of an Iraq haunted by the specter of rampant sectarianism? And a Lebanon teetering on the brink of fresh chaos.

Thank goodness for Tunisia, with the care that went into crafting its new constitution prompted in part by the realization of what happens when extreme positions are taken by those both in government and those outside, with opponents quickly vilified as terrorists or worse. And thank goodness too for Yemen where the establishment of a National Dialogue Conference represents a positive attempt to bring together most of the important political actors behind an agreement of a broad set of principles that will form the basis for a new constitution. True that the Conference was forced to over-run its initial timetable by four months. True too that there is still much that could go wrong, including trouble from the many marginalized groups not yet properly represented in the discussions. Nevertheless, as Winston Churchill once famously observed: “Better Jaw Jaw than War War.”

Not for nothing can the Middle East be considered a “graveyard” for those who have tried to make peace. Sometimes literally as in the case of Count Bernadotte assassinated by the Zionist Stern Gang in Palestine in 1948. And others shot at by one side or the other as they tried to monitor fragile ceasefires or the borders arranged as a result of this or that United Nations–brokered truce agreement. Theirs is a dangerous but absolutely vital task and we should salute them for it.

This article was published in Arabic in Al-Hayat in February 2014.