The ‘Egyptian’ Arab League
The new Secretary General of the Arab League, is a veteran diplomat who has had a remarkable run across diplomatic missions
In the early eighties, we travelled as students from Washington to Cairo as part of a political science study tour. During the trip, I do not know why our teacher decided to visit the Diplomats Club, a beautiful old building on Talaat Harb Street. We met a number of workers in the Egyptian foreign ministry there and everything in it suggested nobility and reminded us of the days of the Pashas. Our teacher, Alan Taylor, said that the Egyptian diplomacy has survived, even after the 1952 revolution.
Most of the elite families, or those who excelled in their studies, held significant political positions abroad. The private club, which was designed by a French architect, used to symbolize high-end diplomacy; it included people from ambassadors to cooks who were assigned to work in Egyptian embassies around the world. Ancient Egyptian diplomacy, similar to the hundred-year-old Diplomats Club, preserved their traditions.
Ahmed Aboul Gheit, the new Secretary General of the Arab League, is a veteran diplomat who has had a remarkable run across Egyptian diplomatic missions from New York to Moscow. As a foreign minister he has dealt with different regional issues and conflicts with major powers.
Although there are those who complain about Egyptian monopoly over the post of the Arab League Secretary General, no Arab country has been able to provide what the 22 member states used to agree upon, except agreeing on the host country’s suggestions. No candidate or country, other than Egypt, has been accepted by all others.
Arab governments have failed to take advantage of the Arab League to benefit their citizens so they have transformed it into a forum for disputesAbdulrahman al-Rashed
If events of the past is anything to go by, the real problem is not the Secretary-General’s position – as several changes have been made to empower the Arab League – but the persistence of Arab conflicts.
The inability of the member states to start a political discourse has thwarted the rest of its activities, paralyzing most of its work. The League’s headquarters and the position of the Secretary-General are not the problem. This became evident when, under pressure from Saddam Hussein and Hafez al-Assad, the League’s headquarters were moved from Egypt to Tunisia and handed over to Chedli Klibi. Nonetheless, this did not prove to be a step forward.
Man at the helm
With Aboul Gheit in power, we do not expect miracles, although he is the best person to manage the League, which was founded when Britain announced its support for any Arab Association after World War II. The new Secretary-General recognizes the importance of the League and the importance of what it represents. He knows that it could be of great value if the governments of the member states overcome their differences and agreed to cooperate.
The Arab League represents a huge region with resources that can make it a major power. It is the fourth in terms of global population (300 million people) and the second in the world in terms of area surface. The challenge is in achieving a collective Arab agenda; Arab governments have failed to take advantage of the Arab League to benefit their citizens so they have transformed it into a forum for disputes.
I do not think that the new Secretary-General can change this reality if its influential member states fail to agree on common projects leading to development and stability. Dr. Nabil el-Araby, the Secretary-General whose term ended, held the position during times of chaos of revolutions. More importantly, he was able to save the League from collapse and total chaos.
The new Secretary-General, Aboul Gheit, has assumed charge at a time that is no less dangerous, with the growing threats from Iran, and the raging wars in Syria, Libya and Yemen, as well as political differences between member states at its worst.
This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on Mar. 12, 2016.
Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the former General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded, thriving and influential position it is in today.
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