Popular El-Arabi could replace reviled Shehab as Egypt's candidate for Arab League top post

Dina Ezzat, Thursday 3 Mar 2011

With Amr Moussa due to end his term as Arab League secretary general, Egypt's hopes of keeping the top post will rest on its nominating the right candidate

Reviled Shehab (l), and popular El-Arabi, two potential Egyptian candidates for the Arab League
Reviled Shehab (l), and popular El-Arabi, two potential Egyptian candidates for the Arab League's top post

Weeks before the end of the mandate of Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa, there is much confusion over who will next head the pan-Arab organisation.

"The issue is still undecided, mostly because the Egyptians cannot make up their mind on a candidate — a good candidate," said an Arab League diplomat.

Speaking to Ahram Online as Arab foreign ministers were meeting for their regular spring council, the diplomat said the matter is not being openly debated but it is being raised in sideline consultations.

Moussa's mandate, the second five-year term since he first headed up the Arab League in mid-May 2001, ends on 15 May. Moussa, who is already preparing an electoral campaign for the Egyptian presidency, is not planning to extend this mission.

Egypt, that had under the rule of President Hosni Mubarak, who stepped down on 11 February, been lobbying for Moussa to stay on has not prepared a shortlist of other candidates for the position. The only alternative aired was Moufid Shehab, the now dismissed minister for parliamentary affairs. Egypt forwarded, pulled and re-forwarded the nomination of Shehab in less than two weeks.

Today, Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit said nothing in the open meetings on Shehab. "He knows that nobody is going to accept this nomination. And I don’t think the Egyptian people would accept that Shehab be the representative of post-revolution Egypt," said an Arab diplomat who asked for his name to be withheld.

On Monday, Arab League Secretary General Moussa met with interim Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq to consider alternatives. A source close to Shafiq told Ahram Online that Moussa proposed Nabil El-Arabi, a veteran Egyptian diplomat who served as a judge at the International Court of Justice, as "the right candidate". El-Arabi has also been one of the main leading figures in the Committee of Wise Men, formed in the course of the revolution to provide support to the youth and facilitate their negotiations with state bodies. 

Arab League and Egyptian officials say the name of El-Arabi is being widely circulated. "He is very well-respected across the Arab world; he is a very easy candidate to defend," said an Egyptian diplomat. It almost goes without saying that El-Arabi's candidacy would meet with wide-spread approval among the Egyptian public and the youth of the revolution. 

Egypt is keen to keep its monopoly over the top seat of the League.

With the exception of the latter half of the 1970s and the early 1980s, when the headquarters of the Arab League was moved from Cairo to Tunis, as part of Arab sanctions on Egypt for signing a unilateral peace deal with Israel, the seat of the secretary general has been strictly Egyptian.

This monopoly has been recently challenged. Algeria, Qatar and Syria expressed interest in a rotating seat.

However, as Mubarak stepped down, these and other Arab countries expressed willingness to let Egypt keep the seat, provided a good candidate is offered.

Today, both Qatar and Algeria suggested that if Egypt insists on Shehab they are going to run their own candidates. The issue was moved off the agenda.

"But the matter is not resolved. We are waiting for Egypt to send an official nomination of a new candidate," said the Arab League official.

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