Meet Nabil El-Arabi: The new head of the Arab League

Dina Ezzat , Monday 16 May 2011

In his short time at the foreign ministry before being elected secretary-general of the Arab League, the respected career diplomat restored a sense of pride for Egyptians in their country's role in the region

Nabil El-Arabi
Egypt's Foreign Minister Nabil Elaraby attends the opening of an emergency meeting among Arab League foreign ministers to discuss Libya in Cairo in this March 12, 2011 file photo (Photo: Reuters)

Principled, determined and, most of all, impatient – those are the main characteristics used to describe Nabil El-Arabi, Egypt’s foreign minister of Egypt and the recently elected secretary-general of the Arab League. Both his admirers and adversaries – although he is not very good at collecting enemies due to his humble and confident nature – describe him in these terms.

The 75-year old diplomat’s appointment as foreign minister in March was received with considerable public and intellectual support. His performance in the post during the past few weeks, gaining him wide admiration, restored the positive public image of the foreign ministry that had been eroded by the much criticised diplomatic choices of the last few years of Hosni Mubarak’s rule and sees him now emptying a desk that he has hardly occupied.

"We just had celebrated him and now he has to move; this goes to show that this man has so much to give," said an assistant at his office in the foreign ministry.

According to this assistant, who has worked with four of El-Arabi's predecessor, this foreign minister achieved a major accomplishment in a very short space of time: "He regained the respect of the foreign ministry and of those who serve at the ministry."

She added that during the years of Amr Moussa, who was Egypt's foreign minister from 1991 to 2001 until he was elected Arab League secretary-general, "people used to look at me with admiration when I said I worked at the office of the foreign minister; unfortunately, and despite the many good qualities of (Moussa's successors) Ahmed Maher and Ahmed Abul-Gheit, this was not the case after; but two weeks after Minister El-Arabi came to office, I am again seeing this look of admiration at the eyes of people.”

As sentimental and maybe even superficial as this remark might come across, it does carry some deep significance. El-Arabi, as many Arab and Western diplomats in Cairo say, has given Egyptian diplomacy a total face-lift.

"I can tell you that my immediate sentiment of him, right after two meetings, was positive. He is a man that we may disagree with but we can do business with because he knows what he wants to do in terms of policies. He knows that he wants Egypt to be party to regional policy-making and he knows that this has to be done in line with certain parameters that we may agree or disagree with," said a Cairo-based Western diplomat – three weeks after El-Arabi’s appointment as foreign minister.

Similar views are offered by Arab diplomats who met with El-Arabi. "Unlike his predecessor he does not lecture us about the history, role and strength of Egypt. He tells us in direct language what Egypt wants to do or does not want to do and he can make a compromise or a deal or whatever you call [it]," said an Arab diplomat.

The public persona of El-Arabi, who has generally a fairly low-profile and is a rather shy individual, is that of someone with a message to convey and who knows how to convey it in a concise and persuasive style.

However, it is content and not just style for which El-Arabi is admired. The clear stance that the foreign minister in the post-Mubarak regime adopted on working to help ease the humanitarian tragedy of Palestinians besieged in Gaza and on normalising relations with Tehran received immediate applause from a public that has long been frustrated by the determination of Egyptian authorities to block its borders with Gaza despite the suffocating Israeli siege. Such a stance was exacerbated by the former regime’s endless wars of words with Tehran at a time when the latter was gaining enormous admiration for its ability to stand up to the West.

"It is true that by the time he leaves for the Arab League, relations with Tehran would not have been fully normalised and the borders with Gaza would not have been fully opened, but still things are taking that track," said an Egyptian diplomat.

For some Egyptian and foreign diplomats, the change of policies is essentially a function of the change of regimes in Egypt. However, these same diplomats agree that it is also a result of the choices of this particular foreign minister who comes with a long experience both of diplomacy and international law. 

"El-Arabi served in many UN posts and he knows that Egypt and Iran are partners in this region and their cooperation could serve them both well," said a New York based Egyptian diplomat.

According to a Palestinian diplomat, the long association of El-Arabi with international law, both in the academic and professional sense, made him fully aware of the illegality of the decision of the Mubarak regime to close its borders with Gaza.

A graduate of the Cairo University law department, El-Arabi also has a PhD degree, in international law from New York University. He joined the foreign service in the 1950s and served in several bilateral and multilateral posts, from junior diplomatic officer to ambassador and permanent representative.

In 1991, El-Arabi was summoned for consultations to replace Essmat Abdel-Meguid, who was nominated for the Arab League, as foreign minister. The job went instead to Amr Moussa.

Twenty years later, the job came to El-Arabi who had retired from diplomatic service in 2001 after being  elected a judge at the International Court of Justice in the Hague, a job he kept for 4 years. 

 And after less than four months in Egypt's top diplomatic post , El-Arabi, who was in the 1970s Moussa's boss, is taking over yet another job from the prominent Egyptian diplomat: secretary-general of the Arab League. Both he and Moussa joked about this during a foreign ministers meeting at the Arab League on Sunday 15 May, the day of El-Arabi’s election to the post of secretary-general.

The election of El-Arabi was subject to wide Arab and Egyptian support. Typically, El-Arabi – who knows very well how to be angry, firm and dismissive – was overwhelmingly humble by the applause with which his election was met.

"He knew very well that everybody supported him, there was no surprise about it. But this is Nabil El-Arabi, he is someone who is very confident of himself but who is also capable of being very humble," said a close assistant.

Early on in his career as a diplomat, El-Arabi showed this clear mixture of confidence and modesty when, during the Camp David talks, he went to see the then all glorious president Anwar Sadat to share concerns over the draft of the accords that the late Egyptian president was going to sign. With a confidence lacking in many other diplomats who were at Camp David, El-Arabi made his point and with modesty he accepted Sadat's rejection and continued to do the work assigned to him as part of the Egyptian negotiating delegation.

Something in El-Arabi's background might have given him that mixed nature. His father, Abdullah Mohamed El-Arabi, was a professor of law at Cairo University from Upper Egypt who obtained his PhD at Oxford University.

El-Arabi was born and brought up in Heliopolis. It is there that he lived whenever assigned in Egypt. However, upon his return from The Hague, El-Arabi could not put up with the commute from east Cairo to the west Cairo based international arbitration offices, where he worked.

El-Arabi then had to choose between full retirement and moving from Heliopolis to Zamalek.

Given that his daughter, two sons and his grandchildren live in Zamalek and Garden City, he moved with his wife Nadia Taymour to Zamalek – not very far from his office. From there it was the foreign ministry where he was the first ever foreign minister not to have the picture of a president or monarch in his office.

El-Arabi was never a secret admirer of this revolution. He supported and joined the young men in Tahrir Square even before Hosni Mubarak stepped down on 11 February.

For El-Arabi, this revolution was compatible with things he long believed in: freedom, justice and equality.


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