The last time the NAM suffered a major political split was when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979. The bulk of the members wanted to condemn the invasion, while a few of the more influential (Algeria, India, Iraq) refused to go along. It damaged the NAM's credibility. This year, it is Syria that poses the dilemma.
In May, at Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, within sight of Hosni Mubarak's hospital incarceration, the NAM coordinating bureau's ministerial meeting tried to put together a resolution on Syria. The Saudis and Qataris wanted a strong condemnation of the regime, but the Syrians, who remain NAM members, took exception to the draft. The final document was anodyne, calling for the success of former UN secretary general Kofi Annan's Six Point Plan.
Annan has quit. In his place has come the seasoned Algerian diplomat and UN bureaucrat Lakhdar Brahimi, who is no stranger to the NAM circuit. Brahimi knows a lot about conflict, having recently been the UN's man in Afghanistan and Iraq, and having been the broker to the Taif Agreement (1989) that suspended the Lebanese Civil War.
Brahimi's role will be difficult. Cynicism tears at Syria's future. Most discussion on Syria comes at it from its geopolitics: What will be the impact of the fall of Bashar al-Assad's regime for US power or Gulf Arab power in the region? Will this have a detrimental impact on Hezbollah, on the Palestinians, on the Iranians? These are valuable questions, but they obscure the much more basic class question posed by the uprising in Syria: What is best for the Syrian people?
There is little argument that Assad's regime governs with one hand clothed in the military's iron and the other morphed into a credit card for the kleptocratic neoliberal elite. There is also little argument that the Assad regime's brutality toward its population has a long history, most notably during the first 11 months of the 2011 uprising when the people in their coordination committees chanted silmiyyeh, silmiyyeh (peaceful, peaceful) as Assad's tanks roared into their midst.
The correct handling of the contradictions should lead one to full support for the freedom of the Syrian people, which has come to mean two things: the end of the Assad regime and the retraction of the hand of the US, the Gulf Arabs and the Russians. But Brahimi will not be able to move an agenda as long as the Syrian people's needs are not at the center of things.
It is also why the NAM will not be able to act effectively vis-a-vis Syria. One NAM delegation to Moscow and another to Riyadh-Doha asking for a suspension of weaponry and a cooling down of the rhetoric would have a marked impact on Assad and his beleaguered circle. This is not in the cards.
Leadership has now fallen on Egypt's new president, Mohamed Morsi. At the Organization of Islamic Cooperation meeting in Mecca this month, its 57 states expelled Syria. This followed a resolution put forward by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Only Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi cautioned the group not to act in haste. He tried to take shelter in Assad's pronouncements about elections and reforms, none of this is meaningful any longer. Salehi and the Iranians are plainly worried about the dynamic of history shifting to the advantage of the Gulf Arabs. This has colored their view of the Syrian conflict.
Egypt built a small bridge to Tehran at the OIC meeting. Morsi proposed the creation of a Contact Group, which would include Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. This was welcomed by all sides. A few days later at a ministerial meeting in Jeddah, Salehi met with Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohammed Amr to draw out the implications of this Contact Group. Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman Rahim Mehmanparast said the Contact Group would be a mechanism to "review and follow up on [regional] issues so that peace would be established in the region." Nothing concrete has been achieved so far, but all indications are that Egypt will use the NAM process to find a way between the hard lines on both sides.
Egypt and Iran broke their ties after the 1979 Islamic Republic was formed. But after the ouster of Mubarak, small gestures brought the countries into communication. The Egyptians allowed an Iranian frigate to go through the Suez Canal (the first since 1978). Iran welcomed the Arab Spring in North Africa as an "Islamic Awakening," and hoped for a rapprochement with the new Muslim Brotherhood politicians of the region.
The Qataris and Saudis also had such hopes, and these are antagonistic to Iran. Emir Hamad bin Khalifa of Qatar met with Morsi for dinner last week, where the Qataris pledged $2 billion in assistance to Egypt (a rumor floated around that the Qataris wanted to lease the Suez Canal, perhaps to prevent passage to those Iranian frigates).
Morsi had welcomed Iranian Vice-President Hamed Baqai a few weeks before the Qatari visit, accepting the invitation to come to Tehran for the NAM meeting and hand over the chair from Egypt to Iran in person. At the OIC meeting, Morsi and Ahmadinejad were seen to speak for a considerable period. It is likely that Morsi would like to fashion himself as the non-aligned voice between Iran and the Gulf Arabs, and to provide Brahimi with the kind of policy space he will require.
Morsi has a complex itinerary. He will go to Tehran via Beijing. Between a conclave with Hu Jintao and then later with Manmohan Singh, between discussions with the Gulf Arabs and the Iranians, Morsi's gestures suggest an affinity with the kind of multipolar foreign policy developed by the BRICS countries.
The tea leaves are hard to read. The top issues on the NAM agenda are Iran and Syria. One is about a war that Israel itches to start, and the other is about a war that the Assad regime is conducting against the Syrian people. The very fact that the NAM summit is taking place in Tehran shows that there remains support for Iran against any precipitous action. If Morsi's Contact Group can be pressured within the NAM to take a strong class position on Syria and not hide behind the cynicism of geopolitics, then this will be seen as a historic summit.
Vijay Prashad's new book, Arab Spring, Libyan Winter , is published by AK Press.