Saturday,18 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1285, (3 - 9 March 2016)
Saturday,18 August, 2018
Issue 1285, (3 - 9 March 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Back to the future at the Arab League

A new Egyptian secretary-general will be named to the pan-Arab organisation, diplomats report, as part of a political deal with Riyadh, writes Dina Ezzat

Al-Ahram Weekly

On 10 March, Arab foreign ministers are scheduled to assemble for their regular spring meeting at the Cairo headquarters of the Arab League. The meeting comes at a moment of considerable uncertainty over the fate of the Arab Summit, now tentatively set to be held in the Mauritanian capital of Nouakchott in July, after Morocco turned down hosting the regular late-March assembly.

It also comes in the wake of the public announcement of Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Al-Arabi that he has no plans to pursue a second term in office. Al-Arabi took the helm of the aging and ailing Arab organisation at the height of the Arab Spring in 2011.

Earlier, Al-Arabi had briefly taken the job of Egyptian foreign minister after street protests forced the resignation of Hosni Mubarak’s top diplomat, Ahmed Abul-Gheit, because of his close association with the succession scheme for Gamal Mubarak, the younger son of the beleaguered autocrat.

As the seventh head of the organisation, which was established prior to the liberation of Arab countries from colonisation, Al-Arabi was expected to be the secretary-general who would oversee the democratisation waves that hit the Arab world. When he took over, Tunis has already been freed from the dictatorship of Zein Al-Abidine Ben Ali; Egypt had seen the ouster of Mubarak; and Syria, Libya and Yemen were in the early stages of their own revolutions.

It was in the first weeks of Al-Arabi’s mandate that the Arab organisation celebrated the end of the four-decade-long dictatorship of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and the taking over of a transitional political council.

The celebrations were, however, short-lived. In a matter of a few months, the situation in Libya started to take a downward curve towards militia warfare among the traditionally battling tribes, including that of the ousted ruler.

Syria’s “revolution” evolved into a civil war, with many foreign militants fighting troops on the ground. Meanwhile, Yemen’s spring was elusive and the country was on the verge of collapse before the Saudis— who regard Yemen as being in their immediate backyard — orchestrated a political deal that allowed the relatively face-saving exit of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Tunis has since been stumbling in its pursuit of a new reality that accommodates its political diversity. Egypt, too, has seen challenges.

“It was not an easy time for the Arab League, these past five years, and it is not just that we were bracing ourselves for one thing and found another, but also because the many internal political hiccups overshadowed the chances of the Arab League to make any serious contribution,” said a senior Arab League diplomat.

He explained that some leading Arab countries, especially Egypt and Syria, were consumed with their own internal affairs. Meanwhile, North Africa and Arab Gulf states and regimes were busy observing Tunis, as well as working to make sure that the winds of the Arab Spring didn’t reach their capitals.

Western diplomats in Cairo who represent their countries in the Arab organisation argue that, ultimately, “there was no Arab League”.

“Obviously, we are aware that for a very long time there was no collective Arab consensus, but during the last five years it felt like there were no two Arab countries in agreement on anything except very occasionally,” said a European ambassador in Cairo.

The foreign diplomatic corps in Cairo seem to agree that while the Arab League was sidelined, and while Cairo, traditionally seen as the leading Arab capital, was overwhelmed with political and economic challenges, it was Riyadh that assumed de facto leadership.

“There was no need to call up so many Arab foreign ministers if we want to consult on something or get something done. We talk to the Saudis and they coordinate with the UAE, Egypt and Jordan. North African countries stayed away anyway,” said a Western diplomat during a recent visit to Cairo.

Today, this diplomat says there are no indications that things are set to change soon, with or without the advent of a new Arab League secretary-general.

The expected new man at the helm is no other than the man who left office at the Foreign Ministry for Al-Arabi in the spring of 2011: Ahmed Abul-Gheit.

Egypt hoped to propose Abul-Gheit for the job last year, when it was taking over the rotating presidency of the Arab summit, but declined in the wake of considerable protests on the home front, with opponents of the nomination recalling the close association of the former foreign minister with the ousted Mubarak regime, and with his widely criticised statements on Arab-Israeli relations.

Considerable apprehension about the positions of several Arab capitals — including Doha, Algiers and Khartoum, with whom Abul-Gheit had incurred considerable dislike during his seven years as foreign minister of Egypt — also contributed to Egyptian hesitation over the nomination.

Today, however, in the wake of the reluctance of Al-Arabi in the face of demands made by Cairo for him to pursue a second term in office, Cairo is confident about proposing Abul-Gheit.

“It is going to pass,” said an Egyptian diplomat. “We went through the consultations and we believe that we are on the right path.” He explained that Cairo is not excluding that some Arab capitals may abstain from the voting process, but argued that the machinery of Egyptian diplomacy is currently working to secure collective support for the candidate, whose nomination is coming as part of a wider political deal.

Informed Arab diplomats say that Egypt agreed to a Saudi proposal for Riyadh to use its influence with capitals objecting to Abul-Gheit in return for the consent of the Egyptian regime to cool down its tensions with Qatar and with Turkey. This would help the Saudis create what they hope would be a united Muslim Sunni front — “first political, and hopefully military,” according to an Arab Gulf diplomatic source — in the face of Iran.

Saudi Arabia is firm in its conviction that the ultimate threat to its own stability and security is the expansionist scheme of Iran, which is hoping, according to the narrative that Riyadh offers, to “use” Shia communities across Arab countries to have a determining influence over regional affairs.

Arab and foreign diplomats in Cairo agree, almost unanimously, that Saudi determination to remove Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad from any political deal on the future of Syria has nothing to do with the brutality that Al-Assad showed towards the Syrian people but is strictly related to its anti-Shia offensive, which considers Al-Assad in Syria, Hizbullah in Lebanon and former Yemeni ally Ali Abdullah Saleh as tools of Tehran’s ambitions for regional hegemony.

For many in Arab diplomatic quarters, Abul-Gheit would have to deliver to the leading financer of the pan-Arab organisation the same united front Riyadh aspires to in its confrontation with Iran.

One informed retired Egyptian diplomat said that the Egyptian candidate had already discussed this matter at length with Saudi diplomats while lobbying their support (which effectively means the overall support of the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council and subduing protest by both Algeria and Sudan).

As foreign minister of Egypt from 2004 to 2011, Abul-Gheit displayed considerable apprehension towards Iran. He also demonstrated exception to Hizbullah and to Hamas, a Sunni resistance movement in Palestine that is supported by Iran.

Another mission Abul-Gheit will have, according to informed sources, is to champion the cause of “stability versus revolution”. The new secretary-general is expected to “tell the world” that Arab countries need a very slow evolution towards democracy, and that the “hiccups” that came with the Arab Spring have to be stopped before the entire region, and not just Syria, turns into an unending supplier of illegal immigrants.

Moreover, Abul-Gheit will have to keep reminding the world that political Islamic movements like the Muslim Brotherhood should be rejected by the West on the basis that a man who starts as a member of the Muslim Brotherhood in an Arab capital could end up being an Islamic State group militant in another Arab country.

Arab League diplomats say that Abul-Gheit would keep to the tradition that has always, with few exceptions, associated the Arab organisation with the wishes of the strong Arab countries.

The adoption of a resolution to endorse the nomination of Abul-Gheit as the eighth secretary-general would mean that Egypt has managed to keep its de facto monopoly on the job and that the call for rotation of the post, made repeatedly in recent years in some North Africa and Arab Gulf capitals, has again been put on the backburner.

add comment

  • follow us on