Region’s crises raise questions about Arab League role

No one in the region, including the Egyptians themselves, believes the Arab League really matters, analysts say.

Saturday 17/07/2021
A file picture shows Secretary-General of the Arab League Ahmed Aboul Gheit during a meeting in Cairo. (REUTERS)
A file picture shows Secretary-General of the Arab League Ahmed Aboul Gheit during a meeting in Cairo. (REUTERS)

CAIRO – The Secretary-General of the Arab League, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, appeared recently on more than one occasion to make strong statements suggesting that the world is waiting for his position and that of the Arab League on current developments.

The reality however is that the Arab League does not usually do more than follow developments from afar until regional and international powers get hold of this or that crisis. But no one awaits the position of Aboul Gheit as a person or an institution.

As the head of the leading pan-Arab institution, Aboul Gheit has been content since taking office as Secretary-General of the League in 2016, with monitoring regional events and then making occcasional statements where he tries to accommodate certain parties concerned with any one particular issue. But more often, he refrains from intervening and keeps his distance from most contentious issues.

This has made Aboul Gheit’s recent outspoken attitude towards certain crises quite intriguing. This was the case in statements he made about the Nile dam and the Libyan and Lebanese crises.

But in reality,  Aboul Gheit was just walking in the footsteps of previous secretaries-general who made toeing Egypt’s position another preset rule for the League.

Aboul Gheit, they say, does not speak out loudly except when Egypt needs his voice, whether it is the Nile dam issue, in which Cairo finds itself in a tough predicament, or in the Libyan crisis, when Cairo seeks to contain Turkish moves.  He eventually adopted a handoff stance there leaving Libya’s fate in the hands of foreign powers. His statements towards the Lebanese crisis only echoed Cairo’s stance.

Analysts say that any sudden return to the fore (especially when Egypt’s interests warrant it) does not mean that Aboul Gheit is an influential figure on regional issues or that the League has begun to carry weight.  No one in the region ,  including the Egyptians themselves, believes the Arab League really matters, analysts say.

The League’s siding with Egypt on the issue of the Renaissance Dam led Ethiopia to reject its intervention and accuse it of bias. It said the Arab League’s position does not help solve the crisis but rather complicates it.

The League was not obviously pleased with Ethiopia’s complaint to the UN Security Council, in which it portrayed the pan-Arab institution as an intruder in comparison to the African Union that supports Addis Ababa and whose mediation was approved by the Security Council.

Although the Arab League is completely absent from the Lebanese crisis, because it remains disconnected from key domestic and external players there, its secretary-general pledged to “continue to follow the situation in Lebanon and extend support to the country in this delicate phase of its history.” He did not explain, however, the nature of this support and its possible impact.

Aboul Gheit made his statements in New York on the sidelines of his participation in the Security Council session on Libya. It is ironic that the League, despite its presence in New York, had not  met any of its responsibilities towards the North African country and had left the main cards there in the hands of Turkey and Russia.

Analysts say that the current Secretary of the Arab League tends to make strong statements to draw attention to himself, especially when the issues at hand are of no major importance. On the other hand, he makes usually brief statements when it comes to controversial issues, such as Syria’s return to the Arab League.

Egyptian sources say that Aboul Gheit admitted privately that he was unable to do anything regarding the issue of Syria’s return to the League and that he was convinced that real decision on the issue remains in the hands of major powers who will green-light or block the move.

The contradictions of the Arab League extend to the Palestinian cause, where the institution has confined itself to general statement of condemnation and eschewed the tough issues of Palestinian reconciliation and those of resuming negotiations with Israel, dealing with Jewish settlements and defending the Arab Peace Initiative.

The same analysts says the coronavirus crisis has also revealed the relative impotence of the League whose passive role was no match to the impressive activism of another regional organisation, the African Union.