Taxing mission, divided region face new Arab League chief
CAIRO - The 22-member Arab League, which celebrates its 71st anniversary this month amid unprecedented turmoil in the region, has a new secretary-general, with the hard mission of resurrecting the organisation, reunifying Arab ranks and rescuing four states shattered by wars.
Ahmed Aboul-Gheit, Egypt’s former foreign minister, was elected to the post on March 10th during a stormy session at the pan-Arab organisation headquarters in Cairo, amid reservations from Qatar and Sudan, both of which cited remarks made by him previously against them.
But, away from diplomatic bickering behind closed doors, the 73-year-old Aboul-Gheit, who will serve for five years, takes over the league at a time when the waves of Arab turmoil have never been higher, experts say.
“He has a lot on his plate with four of the 22 member states of the league torn by war,” Hussein Haridi, a former Egyptian assistant foreign minister and a colleague of Aboul- Gheit, said. “He has to get Arab states to agree on a unified way out of the turmoil in these four states; otherwise these states will cease to exist as we know them now.”
The Arab states Aboul-Gheit needs to unify are deeply polarised on how this turbulence can end, driven by their inconsistent national interests.
Syria, a country ripped apart by infighting for five years now, is a case in point. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar are for ending the rule of Syrian President Bashar Assad, even by force, offering support to his armed opposition, while Egypt and Iraq are for a negotiated solution to the crisis. Other Arab states apparently stand on the fence.
Inter-Arab rifts are also palpable on other fronts, including Yemen, Iraq and Libya, where the Islamic State (ISIS) seemingly overruns new territories every day, directly threatening the security of neighbouring Arab states.
Palestine, which for decades had been the Arabs’ issue No 1, is taking a backseat, while Arab states are busy trying to solve their internal problems.
Under the strains of bringing member states together are limits to what anybody can do as Arab League secretary-general, experts say. These limits were outlined by outgoing chief Nabil Elaraby after Aboul-Gheit’s nomination.
“Do you want this league to be strong?” Elaraby asked. “This depends on the will of league members.”
But this “will”, observers say, is difficult to find at this time of great polarisation.
The Arab League stood idly by and watched as Syria descended into civil war, did nothing as Iraq waded into unrest and then lost territory to ISIS and even gave the go-ahead signal in March 2011 to an international coalition to strike Libya and destroy its army.
The Arab League did little to reconcile Arab states now at loggerheads, either because of the interference of some of them in the affairs of others or because some states pursue foreign policies harmful to others.
An instance of the weakness of the Arab League emerged in late 2015 when Turkey deployed troops into northern Iraq with the stated aim of repelling ISIS.
The league only denounced the move and called on Turkey to withdraw its troops.
The league did nothing more than condemn other violations of Arab rights, including the latest bombing of the Saudi consulate in Tehran.
“The Arab world is full of divisions and tension,” Mohamed al- Shazly, a former diplomat and a member of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs, a think tank, said. “This has emboldened international powers to do whatever they want in the region.”
Nevertheless, Aboul-Gheit, the last foreign minister in the government of autocratic Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, is viewed by some as the person least capable of leading the Arabs out of their ongoing crises.
His repeated defence of the octogenarian president after his ouster in 2011 had brought him criticism, while the mood in Arab countries was all about democracy.
Aboul-Gheit’s tenure as foreign minister was marred by events that changed the Arab world for good. He was foreign minister when Sudan broke up into two states in 2011.
A short while before Israel staged a merciless onslaught on the Gaza Strip in 2008, he was meeting with then-Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni. A few days into the onslaught, he confessed in 2015, he sabotaged an invitation for an emergency Arab summit to discuss the Israeli aggression.
This legacy can haunt the man as Arab League chief. Despite this, soon after his nomination, he promised to work to solve Arab problems, make the Arab League a home for all Arabs and turn it into an effective organisation.
Some people say because of the lack of Arab will to blow life into the league and ongoing rifts, Aboul- Gheit will not succeed.
Nevertheless, this lack of will should not sap the man’s resolve, said Amr Moussa, an Arab League chief for ten years until 2011.
“The secretary-general has to work to create this will,” Moussa told private Dream TV.