Al-Ahram Weekly Online   22 - 28 April 2010
Issue No. 995
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Diplomatic dynamite

Dina Ezzat takes a closer look at the extraordinary spat between the foreign minister and the Arab League chief

They are both Egyptians. One is an unquestionably popular former foreign minister and current Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa. The other is the current foreign minister, Ahmed Abul-Gheit.

During the past few days the two prominent diplomats have been involved in an indirect, unorthodox confrontation for all to see.

In an interview with Abdallah Kamal, editor of Rose El-Youssef and a member of the ruling National Democratic Party, Abul-Gheit levelled unprecedented criticism, even if subtle and carefully worded, on Moussa.

Abul-Gheit criticised Moussa for remarks he made suggesting the need for a more prompt effort for social and political reform. Moussa, Abul-Gheit told Kamal, should have refrained from taking the liberty to make such comments on Egyptian internal affairs. As secretary- general of the Arab League, Abul-Gheit added, Moussa receives his salary from the member states and as such should not be making remarks on their internal affairs unless in a case of acute crisis.

Abul-Gheit added that Moussa's positioning of his statements as those of an Egyptian citizen contradicted with the fact that he is the secretary- general of the Arab League and that it is in this capacity that he gives the interviews that include remarks on internal Egyptian affairs.

It was the first time any Egyptian official had made such a comment on Moussa's recent political remarks which also included a hint that he might run for president should constitutional regulations allow it, as he said.

The remarks by Abul- Gheit were the second time, however, that Moussa was reminded through press statements that as secretary- general of the Arab League, he should refrain from expressing any criticism of the status quo. The first time was practically on the eve of the US occupation of Iraq when then Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Ahmed Al-Sabah echoed the same opinion while standing next to Ahmed Maher, Moussa's successor and Abul-Gheit predecessor.

A few days following Abul-Gheit's remarks which were simultaneously published by the Kuwaiti daily Al-Rai, Moussa told reporters that he would still make remarks on Egyptian affairs, in his capacity as an Egyptian citizen.

The quote was widely circulated and commented on through the websites of the Egyptian dailies and other Internet sites. Many commentators blamed Abul-Gheit, at times in harsh and crude language, for his remarks. The status of Moussa in Egyptian public opinion, they argued, is more than a former foreign minister or a secretary-general of the Arab League. A few were somewhat sympathetic to the foreign minister.

The daily Egyptian press, independent and opposition, joined the debate. For the most part commentators failed to agree with Abul-Gheit, to say the least.

Ultimately, Abul-Gheit had to explain himself through a phone call to one of his critics in the opposition daily Al-Wafd. The foreign minister told Mohamed Amin, the back page columnist of Al-Wafd that his remarks to Rose El-Youssef were not tailored to undermine the right of any Egyptian citizen wishing to express his views on national affairs but rather to make a clear distinction between the rights of an Egyptian citizen and the limitations imposed on the prerogatives of the secretary-general of the Arab League.

In parallel, Kamal -- who was not short, as always, on attacks on Abul- Gheit's critics -- insisted in a front page column that Moussa should resign from his pan-Arab post if he wished to publicly approach Egypt's national affairs.

Kamal had earlier dedicated a series of his columns to attacking Moussa along with Mohamed El-Baradei, the former chief of the IAEA who has expressed interest in pursuing the top presidential post and is currently working on amassing national support for constitutional reforms.

Moussa has declined to comment further. Intentional or incidental, the row might have been put to an end, however, the debate on the national political scene and the calls for reform is still being widely articulated.

According to political science professor and reform activist Hassan Nafaa, Abul-Gheit's remarks accorded to Rose El-Youssef reflect the "level of sensitivity" that "some quarters" within the Egyptian regime have over calls for firmer acts of democratisation.

Technically, Nafaa added, international civil servants refrain from making comments on the affairs of member states but in this case things are rather different given that Moussa had alluded to an intention to run for president following the end of his term. However, he added, also technically speaking, Abul-Gheit's remarks should not have been addressed to Moussa in public but through the apparatus of the Arab League.

Nafaa chose to read into Abul-Gheit's remarks more within the context of the current political mood "whereby we heard some MPs of the ruling National Democratic Party calling on security officers to shoot live ammunition at young demonstrators calling for political and constitutional reforms".

Some NDP and government members who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly on condition of anonymity argued that Abul-Gheit's remarks were prompted purely by the Kamal questions and do not reflect an attack on Moussa. This, Nafaa, found "plausible".

"In view of the health of the president there seems to be some conflicting currents within the party and the regime. I have no doubt about this," he said.

President Hosni Mubarak is currently convalescing in Sharm El-Sheikh following surgery in Germany to remove his gall bladder.

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