In an atypical development, Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul-Gheit was voted in for a second term by Arab foreign ministers, rather than at the summit level, as had been the tradition since the launch of the organisation in 1948.
Normally, the vote would have taken place at the regular Arab summit, which was set to convene in late March. However, for the second year in a row, the summit will be skipped due to the pandemic.
According to diplomatic and Arab League sources, however, COVID-19 is not the only reason Arab leaders are cancelling their annual congregation. The frail health of Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, the next rotated chair of the Arab summit, is also a reason.
The main reason, however, is the lack of interest by most Arab states in holding the summit.
“What would they have the summit for? What would they discuss? What would they agree on, in terms of pressing issues?” said one Arab League source.
According to the source, over the past few years it has become difficult for the secretariat to secure consensus on any of the key issues that would have traditionally been subject to Arab agreement, if only for the sake of lip service.
Certainly, during the autumn of 2019, the secretariat had to drop an official request by Palestine for an Arab meeting to discuss the launch of fast-tracked Arab-Israeli normalisation. The fact of the matter, according to Arab League and diplomatic sources, is that there is very little appetite for any type of “joint” Arab work.
Whether in relation to the founding rasion d’etre, the Palestinian cause, or in relation to the basic concept of an Arab regime, most Arab states have been losing interest to say the least.
This is not something of which the head of the Arab organisation is unaware. Accordingly, sources in the League say he has been reluctant to start any initiatives. He knows that most initiatives will not be picked up.
This, they add, is not just about the political matters in which the Arab organisation should have been a lot more involved, including the civil conflicts that have hit several Arab countries. This also applies to socio-economic or cultural cooperation.
In the five years during which he chaired the Arab organisation, starting May 2016, Aboul-Gheit, a career Egyptian diplomat who served as foreign minister during the last seven years of Hosni Mubarak’s reign, had secured very little intervention by the pan-Arab organisation in the crises in Libya, Syria or Yemen.
The organisation has also hardly played a role in mediating inter-Arab squabbles, including those in the Gulf and the Maghreb.
Still, according to an Egyptian diplomat, it was important for Egypt to nominate him for a second term in office, which will start in mid-May this year. The reason, the Egyptian diplomat explains, is about making sure Egypt does not lose its de facto right, as the venue of the headquarters of the Arab League, to have the seat of the secretary-general of the Arab Organisation for one of its top diplomats.
Prior to Aboul-Gheit, Nabil El-Arabi, Amr Moussa and Essmat Abdel-Meguid, all former foreign ministers of Egypt, had kept the job. Prior to these three, Al-Chazli Al-Klaiby, a Tunisian diplomat, was secretary-general when the headquarters was moved from Cairo to Tunis during the years of the Arab boycott of Egypt in the wake of its signing of a peace treaty with Israel in 1979. The first three secretary generals of the Arab League, since its launch until the Arab boycott, were all Egyptian diplomats: Abdel-Rahman Azzam, Abdel-Khalek Hassouna and Mahmoud Riyad.
“This is not about monopoly, it is about status,” the Egyptian diplomat said. He added that criticism, or praise for that matter, of the performance of the Arab League secretary-general should not be put at the doorstep of his country of origin, but rather should be shared by all member states for failing to come together to get the best thing possible out of their Arab organisation.
Arab League sources and Arab diplomats agree that it is highly unlikely that in his second term in office that Aboul-Gheit, irrespective of his plans or his ability, would be empowered to do much more than he did in the first term.
In the words of one former Arab League diplomat, “I think he knows that for most Arab capitals, the Arab League is something of the past; he is smart enough to wish to just keep it alive rather than to push too hard and have the whole thing crumble.” According to this diplomat, some Arab states would not hesitate to suspend their membership in the Arab organisation if pushed too far.
For his second term, the same diplomat said, Aboul-Gheit’s toughest job will be to make sure that all member states continue to acknowledge the “minimum role” of the Arab organisation “as a forum to consult over at least some key issues.”
“Gone are the times when the Arab League was a place for Arab countries to agree on resolutions. The Arab League has become too fragmented for this to happen,” he argued. He added that it would be interesting for example to see if the Arab summit would convene again next year or the year after when the pandemic recedes.
According to political analyst Amr El-Shobaky, however, given the decline of Arab tensions, at least in some areas, it is the Arab League secretary-general who should take the initiative “to push things at least a bit.”
“It does not make sense that there should be no Arab League envoy to the Arab countries that are facing serious crisis like Libya and Yemen for example,” El-Shobaky said. He argued that Aboul-Gheit needs to prompt the leading Arab countries involved in managing these and other Arab conflicts to consider nominating envoys “if only to secure a minimum of Arab agreement on the management and resolution of these conflicts.”
“Obviously, choosing an envoy and giving him a decent level of independence from the political agendas of the Arab capitals is never going to be easy, but Aboul-Gheit can try for sure,” El-Shobaky said.
He added that it is also “mandatory” for the secretary-general of the Arab organisation, in his second term, to pursue structural reform of the organisation to make sure that it acts more efficiently, not just on the political front but also on socio-economic and cultural issues.
“Ultimately, the member states of this organisation do share a lot in terms of language, culture and heritage; and there is a lot to be done in this respect, because if politics divide Arab countries, maybe culture could bring them together,” he added.
El-Shobaky argued that with the growing debate over the rotation of the seat of the Arab League secretary-general, which had been initiated in the 1990s, Aboul-Gheit could end up being the last Egyptian diplomat to secure the top job of the Arab organisation as a matter of fact.
“I think that rotation will eventually come, though I do not think it would be adopted without the consent of Egypt,” El-Shobaky argued. However, he added, for Egypt to be able to choose the timing of the introduction of rotation, it needs to lend Aboul-Gheit maximum support for him to do a good job at a very difficult time.
Upon his election at the Arab League regular spring meeting on Tuesday, Aboul-Gheit expressed gratitude to President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi for nominating him for a second term in office. However, the re-elected secretary-general has yet to speak about his plan for his second term in office.