Al-Ahram Weekly Online   19 - 25 May 2011
Issue No. 1048
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Nabil El-Arabi -- justice-based diplomacy

Dina Ezzat profiles the man who in a matter of weeks restored the reputation of Egyptian diplomacy and who will now head the Arab League

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Nabil El-Arabi

Principled, determined and often impatient; these are the main characteristics for which Nabil El-Arabi -- foreign minister of Egypt and recently elected secretary-general of the Arab League -- is known, by both admirers and adversaries, though his humility ensures that he has fewer of the latter than the former.

The 75-year-old diplomat, whose appointment as foreign minister in March met with considerable support among the general public and intellectuals, and whose performance gained him wide admiration, restoring the image of the Foreign Ministry damaged during the years of Hosni Mubarak's rule, is now emptying a desk he barely occupied.

"We just had celebrated him and now he has to move. This goes to show that this man has so much to give," said an assistant at the office of El-Arabi at the Foreign Ministry. According to this assistant, who worked with four of El-Arabi's predecessors, this foreign minister achieved much in a very short time. "He regained respect of the Foreign Ministry and of those who serve at the ministry."

The assistant added that during the years of Amr Moussa, who was Egypt's foreign minister from 1991 to 2001, when he was elected Arab League secretary-general, "people used to look at me with admiration when I said I worked at the office of the foreign minister. Unfortunately, and despite the many good qualities of Ahmed Maher and Ahmed Abul-Gheit, this was not the case after. But two weeks after El-Arabi came to office I am again seeing this look in the eyes of the people."

Sentimental though this remark might seem, it carries significance. El-Arabi, many Arab and Western diplomats in Cairo say, has given Egyptian diplomacy a full-scale facelift.

"I can tell you that my immediate impression of him, right after two meetings, was positive. He is a man that we may disagree with, but we can do business with, because he knows what he wants to do in terms of policies. He knows that he wants Egypt to be party to regional policymaking, and he knows that this has to be done in line with certain parameters that we may agree or disagree with," said a Cairo-based Western diplomat three weeks after El-Arabi became foreign minister.

Similar views are offered by Arab diplomats who attended meetings with El-Arabi. "Unlike his predecessor, he does not lecture us about the history, role and strength of Egypt. He tells us in direct language what Egypt wants to do or does not want to do, and he can make a compromise or a deal or whatever you call it," said an Arab diplomat.

The public persona of El-Arabi, who is generally a fairly low-profile and rather shy individual, is one of someone who has a message to convey and who knows how to convey his message in a concise and persuasive style.

However, it is content and not just style that El-Arabi is admired for. The clear stance that the foreign minister of the post-Mubarak regime adopted on working to help ease the humanitarian tragedy of Palestinians besieged in Gaza, and on normalising relations with Tehran, were received with immediate applause by a public long frustrated by the firm determination of Egyptian authorities to hem in Gaza and upkeep a war of words with Tehran.

"It is true that by the time he leaves to the Arab League, relations with Tehran would not have been fully normalised and the borders with Gaza would not have been fully opened, but still things are taking that track," said an Egyptian diplomat.

For some Egyptian and foreign diplomats, the change of policies is essentially a function of the change of regimes in Egypt. However, these same diplomats agree, it is also a result of the choice of this particular foreign minister, who comes with long experience both in diplomacy and international law.

"El-Arabi served in many UN posts and he knows that Egypt and Iran are partners of this region and their cooperation could serve them both well," said a New York based Egyptian diplomat.

And according to a Palestinian diplomat, the long association of El-Arabi with international law, both in an academic and professional sense, left him well equipped to criticise the decision of the Mubarak regime to close its borders with Gaza.

A graduate of Cairo University Law Department, El-Arabi holds a PhD in international law from New York University. He joined the Egyptian foreign service in the 1950s and served in several bilateral and multilateral posts, from junior diplomatic officer to ambassador and permanent representative.

In 1991, El-Arabi was considered as foreign minister following Esmat Abdel-Meguid nomination to the Arab League. The job went to Amr Moussa. Ten years later, the job came to El-Arabi, who since 2001 was a judge at the International Court of Justice. After less than four months in the job, El-Arabi, who was in the 1970s Moussa's boss, is taking over the helm at the Arab League.

The election of El-Arabi to the Arab League has gained wide Arab and Egyptian support. El-Arabi was humble at the applause his election met. "He knew very well that everybody supported him; there was no surprise about it. But this is Nabil El-Arabi. He is someone who is very confident in himself, but who is also capable of being very humble," said a close assistant.

Early on in his career as a diplomat, El-Arabi showed this mixture of confidence and modesty when during the Camp David talks he went to see late President Anwar EL-Sadat to share concerns over a draft the Egyptian president was going to sign. With a confidence lacking in so many other diplomats who were at Camp David, El-Arabi made his point and accepted Sadat's rejection and continued to do the work assigned to him as part of the Egyptian delegation.

Something in El-Arabi's background might have given him that mixed nature. He is the son of the upper-middle class Abdullah Mohamed El-Arabi, a professor of law at Cairo University who was born in Upper Egypt but who received a PhD from Oxford University.

El-Arabi was born and brought up in Heliopolis. Upon his return from The Hague, El-Arabi settled in Zamalek with his spouse Nadia Taymour. His daughter, two sons and his grandchildren live in Zamalek and Garden City.

El-Arabi has one further distinction worth mentioning: he is the first foreign minister to refuse to have a picture of a president or monarch in his office. His lead may well come to define post-25 January Revolution tradition in other ministries.

El-Arabi was not a distant admirer of the Egyptian revolution. He supported and joined the young men in Tahrir Square even before Hosni Mubarak stepped down on 11 February. For El-Arabi this revolution was compatible with things he long believed in: freedom, justice and equality.

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