Saturday,22 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1287, (17 - 23 March 2016)
Saturday,22 September, 2018
Issue 1287, (17 - 23 March 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Abul-Gheit confirmed, but just

The assignment of the post of Arab League chief to Egypt’s former foreign minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit highlights changes in Egyptian-Saudi relations, reports Dina Ezzat

Al-Ahram Weekly

The foreign ministers of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Sameh Shoukri and Adel Al-Jubeir, met in Cairo last Thursday to secure the assignment of former Egyptian foreign minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit as the new Arab League secretary-general.

The move came one day after President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi was in Saudi Arabia, alongside other Arab and Muslim leaders, for the conclusion of the Saudi-led North Thunder military exercises.

The nomination of Abul-Gheit, who retired in 2011 after serving for seven years under the rule of ousted President Hosni Mubarak, had received considerable support ahead of the Thursday meeting. Vocal Qatari reservations, however, meant that Saudi diplomatic support was necessary to see the nomination through.

Egypt was aware that Qatar and a few other states of the 22-member Arab organisation were opposed to Abul-Gheit. During his tenure as foreign minister, Abul-Gheit was critical of Doha, especially during the early days of the 25 January Revolution, when he warned of diplomatic revenge against countries who supported the mass demonstrations.

It was this Qatari rejection, supported by Sudan, Algeria and Lebanon, which helped delay an Egyptian plan to propose Abul-Gheit as the Egyptian candidate for the job at the last Arab summit in Sharm El-Sheikh in March of last year, even though Egypt was at that time moving to take over the rotated summit presidency.

Egyptian officials acknowledge that they had to worry back then about the reaction of public opinion in Egypt to the nomination of Mubarak’s last foreign minister. Apprehension in some Arab capitals was equally a crucial factor in the decision to delay the candidature of Abul-Gheit.

This year, however, Egyptian diplomacy counted on the strong helping hand of Riyadh, which delivered a collective nod of approval from the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, including Qatar.

“There was direct help also from the United Arab Emirates, but it was essentially the Saudis who paved the way towards announcement of Abul-Gheit as an uncontested candidate from Egypt,” said an Egyptian source.

According to the source, the Saudi decision to back Abul-Gheit, against calls for rotating the nationality of the top job at the 70-year-old pan-Arab organisation, was based two things. The first was official approval by Cairo of diplomatic concessions to the countries that were going to contest Abul-Gheit’s nomination.

The second was an official decision by Cairo to show openness towards a Saudi scheme to lower the level of inter-Arab tension and allow Riyadh to press on with its aspirations to form a collective Sunni front in the face of what the Saudis fear are aggressive Iranian moves to project political hegemony over the predominantly Arab region.

The trade-off was consolidated in exhaustive talks between Abul-Gheit and high-level Saudi officials, during which he promised, according to informed Arab sources, to secure the full support of the Arab organisation in the face of Iran and its “arms” across the Arab world — especially Hizbullah in Lebanon, which was designated this week by the Arab League, hours after Abul-Gheit secured his job, a terror organisation.

According to the Taif Agreement, which was reached in the Saudi city of Al-Taif and brought an end to the civil war in Lebanon, Hizbullah is a leading political partner in a very sensitive Lebanese political equation. Cairo is well aware that the new designation of the group as terrorist is going to complicate the situation in Lebanon, which has already been trying for the last three years to reach consensus on the nomination of a new president.

Egypt has long been opposed to Hizbullah, especially during the last few years of Mubarak rule, including during the Israeli war on Lebanon in 2006 that aimed, but failed, to eliminate the group.

Arab diplomatic sources say that there was a perfect rapport between Abul-Gheit and late Saudi foreign minister Saoud Al-Faissal on the need to eliminate Hizbullah, not just because of its associations with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s arch political adversary in the region, but also because of its close association with the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, which both Saudi Arabia and Egypt were having sour relations with.

Today, things are somewhat different, because unlike Saudi Arabia, Egypt wants to see Hizbullah continuing its support for the Al-Assad regime in the ongoing war in Syria.

“Egypt is supporting Al-Assad and as such it is in an atypical and very narrow alliance with Hizbullah, while the Saudis are determined to see Assad’s end. But still, Egypt chose to bow to the Saudi wish to have Hizbullah designated terrorist, first by Arab ministers of interior a few weeks ago, and later by Arab foreign ministers,” noted an Arab League diplomat.

For Egyptian diplomatic sources, this is only one part of what they consider a firm alliance between Cairo and Riyadh, which was extremely supportive of the political transition in Egypt in the summer of 2013 and ad used all its “assets” — diplomatic and otherwise — to secure international recognition of the new political authorities in Cairo following the ouster of Mohamed Morsi one year into his elected term.

Egyptian diplomats also accept that the “cold shoulder” that Cairo has been offering to repeated Iranian overtures over the past two years was designed in part to accommodate the Saudi wish to keep Iran as isolated as possible in the region.

“But we have to take into consideration that when it comes to both Hizbullah and Iran, Egypt has had its issues, independent from the position of the Saudis,” said one Egyptian diplomat.

He added that these issues were essentially to do with the support that both Iran and Hizbullah gave to the short-lived Islamist rule in Egypt, before and after the ascent of the Muslim Brotherhood candidate to the Egyptian presidency in mid-2012.

It was, in fact, these “traditional” positions that Egypt has on Iran and Hizbullah that secured Abul-Gheit the support of Riyadh. This was evident on Thursday, 10 March, at the Arab League, after Qatar suggested that the decision on the new Arab League secretary-general be delayed for a month, or for Egypt to propose another candidate.

It was the Saudis who suggested informal diplomatic consultations, at which the foreign minister of Bahrain, on behalf of the GCC Saudi leader, said that the matter had to be settled and encouraged the Egyptian delegation to reassure the Qatari delegation that once assigned, Abul-Gheit would make public statements to assuage Doha’s anger over his record of anti-Qatar rhetoric.

Inevitably, Arab sources say, the Egyptian delegation had to apologise for statements Abul-Gheit had earlier made against Qatar and also Sudan. Sudan had sided with Qatar in expressing last-minute resistance to the nomination of Abul-Gheit. Egypt then passed the Abul-Gheit nomination to a vote, contrary to past precedent whereby the secretary-general post is assigned by consensus.

After long hours of talks, the Saudis secured the reluctant approval of the Qatari delegation to the Arab foreign ministers meeting to confirm Abul-Gheit as the eighth secretary-general of the pan-Arab organisation, to begin at the end of the mandate of outgoing Arab League chief Nabil Al-Arabi in July.

This is not the first time that Egypt has had a problem placing its candidate at the head of the pan-Arab organisation. In 2000, Egypt had hoped for a limited extension to the mandate of then Secretary-General Essmat Abdel-Meguid for two years, after the end of his two successive terms that had started in 1991. The move did not garner support, so the then high-profile foreign minister, Amr Moussa, was directed to the post.

In 2011, Egypt nominated Mubarak’s minister of parliamentary affairs, Moufid Shehab, but had to withdraw his candidature after the 25 January Revolution. The nomination of a new Arab League secretary-general was delayed for a few months after the March deadline. Al-Arabi, at the time Egypt’s foreign minister, was eventually confirmed in the job.

Arab diplomats say that things are changing and Egypt, which established a strategic partnership with the Saudis in the early years of Mubarak rule in the 1980s, is now taking Riyadh into account in shared decision-making on some matters.

This is despite the fact that, so far, Cairo has continued to resist working against Al-Assad and declined to send large contingents of troops to Yemen, as Saudi Arabia requested, and during a period when Saudi financial assistance to an economically crunched Cairo is declining.

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