Al-Ahram Weekly Online   30 March - 5 April 2006
Issue No. 788
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Up to it

Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa says he's ready for a second five-year term in office even though he predicts tough times ahead for the Arab world and the entire Middle East. On the sidelines of the Khartoum summit which renewed his mandate, Moussa spoke to Dina Ezzat

Amr Moussa

On the eve of the Arab summit that gave the Arab League secretary-general five more years, Amr Moussa is pensive, pre-occupied and a little apprehensive.

The seasoned Egyptian diplomat whose first term at the head of the archaic Arab organisation was anything but smooth, is not at all deterred by the colossal challenges he has encountered, including the occupation of Iraq, the total collapse of the Arab-Israeli peace process, the fall-out between Syria and Lebanon and the aggressive personal assault launched against him by envious political figures in the Arab world. In the next term, he says with unmistakable resolve, he will continue to speak out in support of Arab interests irrespective of any assault that might aim to reverse commitments to that goal. "I have thick political skin," he said in defiance.

Moussa admits that during the past five years he had "moments of deep frustration".

"I was anguished by the vast potentials that the Arab world possesses and the obstacles and challenges preventing the optimum exploitation of such assets to serve the interests of the Arab world."

When pressed, Moussa confessed he thought about relinquishing his post during moments of serious collapse in the collective Arab performance. "It crossed my mind once or twice." He would not specifically say when but some of his closest aides pinpoint 20 March 2003 when the war on Iraq was launched, and a year later when the Arab summit was abruptly called off by its Tunisian host in what seemed then as the beginning of the end, or rather the final chapter of the end of the Arab League.

The advice of his aides plus urgings from some Arab capitals persuaded him to continue to shoulder the responsibilities he was entrusted with. The decision to stay the course might have primarily been for political pride -- or as some would say, ego -- of Moussa, a popular foreign minister of Egypt from 1991 to 2001 before he moved to the Arab organisation in what many perceived was a removal from the Egyptian system where he occasioned numerous instances of envy.

Today, the story is behind Moussa who seems concerned about fulfilling a mission that he had to accept.

"I cannot say I was particularly enthusiastic or interested in pursuing a second term," Moussa said, though Arab leaders argued it was a matter of responsibility, not preference.

Moussa does not lose his poise when confronted with analysis suggesting that Cairo, for fear of losing the almost exclusive monopoly of the post of Arab League secretary- general, had to re-nominate Moussa for lack of other candidates who would be safely granted Arab support by consensus. "The discussion on this issue included several Arab capitals and many Arab leaders. It was not just Cairo that said that this was not the time to exit the stage," he recounted.

It is when Moussa hears questions about the consent allegedly given by the US to his second term in office that he expresses astonishment, puts his expensive cigar in the ashtray and utters, "This is ridiculous." Moussa believes it is absurd for anyone to suggest that he was assuming his second term in office on the basis of an American vote as the question suggests. "Why would the Americans do this? And who can sanely say they were consulted?"

The Americans, he said, could not have endorsed his second term in hope of a continuous effort by the Arab League to contain the growing civil strife that has turned the US invasion of Iraq into a quagmire.

And, when pressed on the role of the US administration in instigating what many found a premature eclipse of his mission at the top of Egyptian diplomacy, Moussa is equally unamused. The Americans, he said, are not particularly concerned about his political career and were not involved in the Egyptian decision in 2001 to nominate him for the Arab League in the first place. "This is all very silly," he reaffirmed.

Moussa, however, is willing to acknowledge that the Americans have a keen interest in the region and as such it is essential for Arabs and Americans to pursue a strategic dialogue to streamline their interests and disagreements in a way compatible with the complex Arab-American relationship and for the benefit of both sides. He credits the Arab League -- rather than the Arab League secretary-general in an occasional but not very convincing exercise of modesty -- for making a breakthrough in promoting better and closer dialogue between the US and the Arab League in the wake of the 11 September attacks. He insists that during his second term, he would continue efforts to promote the Arab-American dialogue "in a way that is based on mutual respect and equity".

"I was never an advocate of undue confrontation with the US. I express disagreement when it is time to do so but I do not pursue a fight," he said. Moussa argues that he will still count on the support of American-Arab groups in this respect. "We had the first Arab-American dialogue in September 2003 and the next round is in Houston in June."

Moussa also asserts that much attention during his second term in office will be accorded to promoting Arab-European relations, with the upcoming Arab-European dialogue scheduled to convene in France in a few weeks acting as a launch pad. In this respect, Moussa stresses that Arabs should not allow their occasional disappointment with the Europeans to set back the development of this naturally crucial relationship, not just for political and economic purposes but for cultural dialogue as well.

In fact, Moussa intends to use his second five-year term to promote closer rapport with many foreign circles including Latin America, Asia and Africa which were areas of initial diplomatic approaches during his first term in office.

It is precisely this cosmopolitan approach by the Arab League during the past five years that Moussa is particularly proud of. "The Arab League has become a full partner with other international, regional and sub-regional organisations." During such encounters, Moussa argues, the Arab League has expressed the views and legitimate demands of the Arab world. And this is an essential matter at this crucial point of new international and regional dynamics that could take the Arab world by storm.

"When I assumed office [as Arab League secretary-general in 2001] I saw that our region was steadily approaching a worst case scenario of chaos. Unfortunately, this scenario has been unfolding aggressively," he said. Moussa said that his concerns today are by no means less dramatic.

"The world is going through an unprecedented phase of instability and as such we cannot exclude further disorder in our part of the world," he said. He added that with these developments in mind, it would be almost naive to exclude the possibility of a serious shake-up in the region. "My worst fear is the disintegration of any Arab country," he said without naming names.

It does not take an expert to list obvious candidates. Iraq is the worry of the moment. "Iraq is a key country in our Arab world. It is currently suffering a serious state of violence and chaos that demands full Arab support for its political process on the basis of national unity that says Iraq belongs to its entire people without any ethnic or religiously-based discrimination."

At this point Moussa again puts down his cigar and affirms, "The future of Iraq cannot be decided away from the will of the Iraqi people or the support and contribution of Arabs."

Moussa is not willing to directly attack Iranian intervention in Iraq or Turkish tampering in the affairs of north Iraq. He rather insists that he has plans to visit Tehran and Ankara in the near future to pursue closer cooperation between the Arab world and both Muslim countries.

However, he stressed in no uncertain terms that Arabs are determined to pursue efforts to promote national unity in Iraq just as much as they are committed to securing an Arab- Israeli peace deal which will have to be within the accepted Arab parametres as defined in the Arab peace initiative.

During the next five years, Moussa can foresee three types of problems: inter-Arab disputes encompassing some serious cases, the internal problems of some Arab states that evolve in a way that prompts regional intervention as in the case of the multi-shaded civil strife in Sudan, and cultural attacks targeting the Arab world in its entirety.

The new regional set-up and the daunting challenges, Moussa agrees, would require a reconceptualisation, in a way, of the role of the Arab League. Previously, this 60-year-old establishment was prevented from intervening in the internal affairs of Arab countries. This is no longer the case. Moreover, the Arab League was previously not responsible for carving a safe niche for the Arab world in the new world order. This, too, has changed. "Of course, the role of the Arab League is being reformulated by force of international and regional developments.

This, however, would require modifying the work mechanisms of the pan-Arab organisation and a more advanced approach towards its modernisation .

"We do not need to worry about the amendment of the constitution. What we, not just as the Arab League but as the Arab world, need to worry about is the evolving face of the Middle East and the role of the Arab world therein. This is our biggest challenge," Moussa said. "It is clear that due to our current state of weakness we cannot impose our rules." At the same time, despite this weakness, Arab countries cannot succumb to an imposed agenda, he added. "So what we really need is a formula accepted by both sides."

But as Moussa firmly stressed, none of the challenges facing the Arab League can be properly dealt with in the absence of the strong support of its 22 member states on the political and financial levels. "Arab countries need to support the Arab League; it represents them all, defends their interest and carries the banner of their rights in a way compatible with the modern world."

Moussa's affirmation of the need of the support of Arab countries is made in a tone marked by the frustrations of the past five years when many a project, developmental and cultural, including the collective Arab participation in the international Frankfurt Book Fair, was hampered by lack of resources and even the not forthcoming political will on the part of some.

Some Arab diplomats have suggested that it is due to Moussa's strict style of exercising politics, that some Arab capitals were not forthcoming with their support. He does not like to dwell on this matter. He entertains no questions, direct or indirect, on whether his style has prompted non- cooperation on the part of some Arab officials, especially in Arab Gulf capitals, where there is ample sensitivity to an alleged Egyptian chauvinism.

Moussa, who is hailed by Arab individuals as one of the Arab world's best politicians, firmly declines to take questions suggesting that much of the problems that came his way as secretary-general were the deliberate work of envious Arab officials who are, for personal rather than professional reasons, uncomfortable with the "charisma of Amr Moussa" that they can neither compete with nor ignore.

But there is a limit to Moussa's ability to exercise modesty, genuine or otherwise. A few steps away from his 70th birthday and with a record of serious objective criticism of the performance of the Arab League during his tenure, that many sincere critics found unbecoming of his political aptitude, Moussa still commands respect and certainly admiration in the Arab street. His popularity as Arab League secretary-general may be less than the level of political and personal popularity he enjoyed as Egypt's foreign minister. However, judging by the account of foes and friends alike, Moussa is still projecting a unique charisma which may not make everyone, himself included, happy. "It is something that you have to live with," he said with a rare glimpse of profound modesty.

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