Thursday,20 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1303, (14 - 20 July 2016)
Thursday,20 September, 2018
Issue 1303, (14 - 20 July 2016)

Ahram Weekly

New Arab League

The arrival of a new secretary-general at the Arab League revives the old question of reform amid the new conditions of the region, writes Abdel-Moneim Said

Al-Ahram Weekly

Should we take Ahmed Abul-Gheit’s assumption of office as the new Arab League secretary general as an opportunity to contemplate and work on an initiative to restructure the Arab League? Some among us will reject this suggestion out of hand if only on the grounds that such contemplation is a route to discord and that all who open up that avenue should be cursed. Another version of naysayers will wring their hands and point to the long history of previous failures. The impediment was not the Arabs’ well-known inter-Arab disputes, they will argue, but their “lack of will”, as the problem is commonly termed, even with regard to acting on resolutions they adopted by unanimous consensus. A third group will try to avoid the discussion. They believe that the Arab League in its current form fulfils its function, which is to be an Arab “home” and symbol. Anymore than this will incur more financial and political costs, which no one wants to pay if they do not directly advance the interests of their own country.

We could have lived with all the foregoing, including more than just failure to reform, until the mayhem and upheaval that struck at the beginning of this decade. As the Arab League was founded on member states, its success or failure was always contingent on their interests, which conflicted more frequently than converged. To compound the problem, some Arab states preferred to escape forward. The Arab League would only be a success if Palestine was liberated from the river to the sea and if Arab states merged into a single pan-Arab state. Other countries preferred to escape backwards to a pre-state order in which “national interests” became identified with the narrow interests of a dominant ethnic, sectarian or ideological group and the perpetuation of the dominance of that group. The problem now, however, is that the Arab state, whether forward fleer or backward fleer, is in peril. While one source of the peril is the conventional threat from outside, the major and most dangerous peril comes from within. It stems from the rise of new and rebellious generations woven by the forces of globalisation and the forces of religio-political creeds that have barricaded themselves behind the most reactionary and backwards values and dogmas.

The historical conditions within the Arab states, their region and, indeed, the entire world, have changed. For all international and regional organisations, dealing with the world during the Cold War period differed from the post-World War II period. Interacting with the world would change again following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of US-centred globalisation. This would last only until the post-11 September period and the US failures in Afghanistan and Iraq, which was immediately followed by the so-called Arab Spring. In spite of considerable talk about the declining importance of the Middle East due to the drop in oil prices and its share in world energy production, or due to the international headache caused by the collapse and failure of states in the Arab region, this region remains the most dangerous region on earth because of the proliferation of religious radicalism in it while, at the same time, the region could have the ability to solve the most important problems in today’s world. A region that is at once the problem and the solution is the most crucial region in the world, regardless of what people say about its declining importance or status.

In cases such as this, change is a process that naturally brings into play existing balances of power. Accordingly, the countries that weathered the curse of the Arab Spring have assumed leadership and have begun to steer the region back towards stability, using such instruments as armed force, economic reform, as well as calls and actions to promote religious reform. This has been discussed in detail on previous occasions in this column. The general thrust has been that a new Arab order has begun to emerge. Consisting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries headed by Saudi Arabia and Egypt, Jordan and Morocco, this order represents the financial, demographic and intellectual weights of the region and seeks to lead this region out of its current plights towards the reestablishment of stability and then into the modern era, with all its pros and cons. This order now has the greatest political influence in the Arab League and on Arab League decisions. Accordingly, the league’s ability to approach Arab problems has been contingent on the degree of consensus between the cornerstones of the Arab order.

Whether the Arab League succeeds or fails under the tenure of its new secretary general will depend, on the one hand, on its ability to manage the current historical juncture and its particular power balances and, on the other hand, on its ability to generate a new common space for managing the Arab world as defined not only by its member states but also by its peoples and generations, its cultural bonds and also by the panoply of interests that transcend state and/or regional boundaries. Fortunately, the new secretary general, Ambassador Ahmed Abul-Gheit, has a long record of political and diplomatic experience in the Egyptian Foreign Ministry and the UN. After leaving the Foreign Ministry several years ago he devoted himself to reading, studying and writing, through which he acquired much more extensive knowledge of today’s world and approaches to its central concerns. In brief, he has the capacities to turn the institution of which he has assumed the helm into a centre for thought, dialogue and Track II diplomacy and even Track I diplomacy when needed, between Arab states and between the Arab region and the rest of the world.

The starting point is that this is a league of nations, not a league above nations. It is a league that, above all, understands balances of power and who possesses the money, the arms and the intellect weight. But this is only the starting point. Beyond that lie extensive horizons for thought and generating new ideas for how to deal with the dozens of issues of concern to all Arab countries in matters of development, security or beliefs, and how to deal with other countries in the region or in the world. Ideas, by their very nature, evolve. They can be developed, cross-fertilised and put to the test against other ideas or through application. They can also be subdivided and classified in terms of phases, priorities and options. This is where the office of the secretary general comes in. His job is to promote and nourish the general progress of the league, which is governed by its charter and customs and which appears resistant to change since, as past experience has shown, all attempts to change it have opened the gates of hell. In all events, if there is to be change or reform, this is the task of the member states through various types of negotiation, pressure and lobbying. But the general secretariat can make this process richer, more fertile and more open by putting forward ideas that have been studied and discussed in forums that are not bound by the diplomatic and political restrictions imposed by states.

There is a panoply of issues that require attention, from how to revive the prestige of the state and how to protect its security to how to develop national resources and conduct the reforms necessary to combat extremism. These and other issues are of concern to all Arab countries. Also, no ideas or points of view out there so far have offered conclusive or effective remedies. Perhaps for the most part Arab countries are perplexed in the face of the many issues they need to address. In addition, they are under enormous pressure to reform but are simultaneously being pulled in the opposite direction by fears of the political and social consequences.

The Arab League has a long list of subjects to explore, whether through its existing centres and think tanks, or through other means and channels devised by the secretary general and his colleagues. These research and deliberation processes will cost money, but it should be possible to obtain the necessary funding outside the dues paid by member states. In all events, what matters is that we realise that the current situation can not continue. Equally, if not more importantly, we need to know the price we will have to pay to change it.

The writer is chairman of the board, CEO, and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

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