Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s president (above), has often cut a controversial figure in the Arab world.
His regime was one of the few to back Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and it attracted further ire by hosting Osama bin Laden and his foot soldiers in the 1990s as they returned from the Afghanistan conflict. Its standing fell further amid accusations of involvement in a 1995 assassination attempt on Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian leader.
But when Louis Moreno-Ocampo, chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, announced that he was seeking a warrant for the arrest of Mr Bashir on genocide charges, his counterparts in the Middle East were quick to rally around.
At Khartoum’s request, the Arab League called an emergency meeting in Cairo. At its conclusion a resolution stated: “The council decides solidarity with the Republic of Sudan in confronting schemes that undermine its sovereignty, unity and stability.”
Cynics may suggest that Arab officials were uncomfortable with the precedent being set. Many are from states that have dire human rights records and may have had thoughts about what might be in store in future.
But the Arab foreign ministers were not alone in adopting such a line. The African Union described the indictment as pouring “oil on fire” and some observers argue that Mr Moreno-Ocampo’s announcement endangers efforts to seek a political resolution to the crisis. From an Arab perspective, however, the charges against Mr Bashir run far deeper than just the crisis in Darfur.
In a region where conspiracy theories abound and a sense of victimisation has been exacerbated by the US invasion of Iraq and the much-criticised policies of the Bush administration, many viewed the indictment as another western-inspired attack on the Arab and Muslim worlds. And the notion of double standards and American bullying – even though the US is not a member of the ICC – has been jumped on by Arab commentators.
“Why has al-Bashir been singled out when known perpetrators of ethnic cleansing and war crimes in Palestine and Iraq remain at large?” wrote a commentator in Egypt’s Al-Ahram weekly, referring to Israeli and US officials and soldiers. “When crimes are committed against Arabs and Muslims the world turns away. Yet mere suspicion against the head of an Arab and Islamic country is sufficient ground for indictment.”
The writer’s views are shared by many Arabs. Such suspicions have been fuelled by the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison and Guantanamo Bay, secret rendition programmes and the plight of Palestinians.
And while the western media and Hollywood stars have railed against violence in Darfur, the conflict has gained less coverage in the Arab media and, in some instances, has been portrayed as exaggerated for western political motives. The fact that Sudan has oil merely inflames such theories, just as many question the motives for the Iraq invasion.
Yet the furore around Mr Bashir’s indictment should not mask the seriousness of what has occurred in Darfur – some 300,000 people are estimated to have perished and 2.5m made homeless. And while the rebels consider themselves Africans and the government and its allied militias Arab, the conflict pits Muslim against Muslim.
The question that should be raised, one Arab diplomat tells me, is: “Are we doing anything about Darfur?”
There is, he says, “plenty of blame” to go around. “Of course it’s easy to point fingers and say, ‘This side did not do this’. But I’m saying everybody has not been doing enough.”
What is happening, the diplomat adds, is “rather ironic”. All the focus is on the ICC charges while there remains no tangible political process to help Darfur and its people.
The upshot is that the Arab world could be – and could have been – more active in trying to resolve Darfur and needs to accept, and make clear, that a serious crisis and terrible crimes have been taking place in an Arab League member state.
As for the west, the saga has been another example of how far its credibility has plummeted in the eyes of many Arabs.
Until the west is seen to act evenhandedly – particularly with regard to the Arab-Israeli conflict – every decision or statement emanating from western capitals in relation to an Arab or Muslim state will be treated with deep suspicion, however well intentioned.
And that mistrust and lack of confidence constitute another area that badly needs to be addressed.