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Arab League picks Egyptian chief at critical time

Aboul-Gheit was the last foreign minister under Mubarak, who was toppled in Egypt’s 2011 uprising

Published: Updated:

The Arab League’s 22 members picked a veteran Egyptian diplomat to head the body in a late-night session on Thursday. Ahmed Aboul-Gheit was the only contender for the post.

The appointment came at a critical time for the Middle East, with Syria marking the fifth anniversary of its devastating civil war, regional proxy wars between Saudi Arabia and Iran on full display, and the battle against ISIS raging in several Arab countries.

Egypt’s Aboul-Gheit, a former ambassador to the United Nations and veteran diplomat under autocrat Hosni Mubarak, had been widely expected to win approval from the league members. It is a long-held protocol that Egypt, as host of the Arab League, traditionally nominates the chief. The league has been almost exclusively led by Egyptians.

Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa announced the decision after some last-minute wrangling over the appointment, saying Aboul-Gheit would “serve a five-year term effective July 1” as secretary-general.

Diplomats said earlier that Qatar and Sudan had opposed the choice of Aboul-Gheit, with Egypt and Saudi Arabia lobbying them to accept the choice. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to brief journalists.

The secretary-general can be elected by obtaining a minimum two-thirds majority of member states, but the group prefers to have unanimous agreement.

Divisions have weakened the Arab League since the 2011 uprisings that toppled three longtime autocratic rulers but also sparked three civil wars.

But despite its waning influence, a strong leadership might help shore up a Saudi-led Sunni front against Iran at a time of ongoing military involvement by the Saudis and other Gulf Arab countries in Yemen and Syria.

Past league chairmen have included pan-Arab nationalists such as Amr Moussa and the outgoing head, Nabil Elaraby. Aboul-Gheit appears to mark a shift as he is known to be a pragmatic diplomat with strong enmity for political Islam factions like the Muslim Brotherhood, the parent organization of Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip.

Aboul-Gheit was the last foreign minister under Mubarak, who was toppled in Egypt’s 2011 uprising. He was replaced after Mubarak’s ouster and kept a low profile while many of Mubarak loyalists were sent to courts for trials in corruption-linked cases.