Relief is perhaps the best way to describe the private reaction of most Arab officials to the sudden and somewhat ambiguous death of Yasser Arafat, the icon of the Palestinian struggle for the past 40 years.
In public, before their own constituencies, these same officials laid on what they felt obliged to provide: a red carpet funeral. Most major Arab leaders and senior representatives were on hand in Cairo to pay their last, and somewhat belated respects to a man they had largely forgotten during his nearly three-year siege in Ramallah.
But beyond the honours of a brief state funeral, Arafat received very little recognition from his fellow Arab leaders. Official statements eulogising the Palestinian leader sounded more like a simple notification of another death, rather than any genuine outpouring of grief at the loss of a revolutionary hero.
At the Cairo headquarters of the Arab League, a two-hour ceremony was held to collectively eulogise Arafat, in response to a request circulated by the Palestinian permanent mission in Cairo and strongly supported by Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa.
But once the ceremonies had ended, there was hardly any further mention of him. Instead, Arab capitals began talking about the need to 'capture the moment' and 'seize the opportunity' to get the US to start moving on the Palestinian-Israeli front. In addition, papers are already being drafted in at least a couple of Arab capitals to be presented at a Barcelona process foreign ministers' meeting in The Netherlands, the current rotating chair of the European Union, in the hope of instilling new momentum into the peace process.
In a syndicated article, 'Arafat left, leaving the Palestinians with an ever vivid dream of independence', run by the Saudi-owned, London-based Asharq Al-Awsat, King Abdullah of Jordan, who was known to have an uneasy relationship with Arafat, as did his late father King Hussein, described the death of the PLO leader as 'a new chance for peace'.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, certain Arab diplomats, in particular those from countries with direct borders with the occupied Palestinian territories and Israel, were explicit in expressing their relief at the death of Arafat. For them, his passing marks the end to the presumptuous obstacles that the Palestinian leader had thrown up on the road to a settlement with Israel, largely for the sake of his own glory. Some see his death as heralding an end to the oppressive control that he had exercised over the Palestinian resistance movements, including Hamas and Jihad. Other diplomats are breathing a sigh of relief at the demise of a leader they considered too self-centred to really care about the misfortunes of his own people.
In six interviews conducted by Al-Ahram Weekly since Arafat's death, there was not a single word of sorrow expressed by any Arab diplomatic source. Indeed, for many, Arafat's death would seem to mark not an end, but a new beginning. This sentiment was also expressed by some Palestinians, who were known for their opposition to Arafat's authoritarian style of rule.
'It is understandable, in a way, that Arab leaders work in a totalitarian manner,' one Palestinian source said. 'They are leaders with states. But Arafat was not a leader with a state; he was the leader of an independence movement.' According to the source, at one point Arafat seemed even to wish to fool himself, claiming that he was a true 'Arab president' in order to be received at the White House.
Given the dominance of such perceptions in diplomatic circles, it is hardly surprising that Arafat's passing has been an occasion for a general sigh of relief. 'He thought he could keep on playing his games of saying 'yes' to one person and 'no' to another over the same offer,' one diplomatic source said. 'He thought he could be the leader of the Intifada and the leader of the peace treaties at the same time. That was impossible. That was the reason that in the end, nobody was willing to burn his fingers for him, because we all knew his real game.'