Egypt risks losing Arab League leadership

Ahmed Eleiba , Friday 22 Apr 2011

Mustafa El-Fiqi's controversial nomination for secretary-general of the Arab League has provoked Egyptian activists to propose potential alternatives and member states to consider rotating the position among themselves

arab league
A general view of the opening session of the Arab Foreign Ministers meeting at Arab League headquarters in CairoA general view of the opening session of the Arab Foreign Ministers meeting at Arab League headquarters in Cairo (Photo: Reuters)


Since the creation of the Arab League in 1945, the protocol has been that an Egyptian is elected to the post of secretary-general. There was only one exception at the end of the 1970s following Egypt’s recognition of Israel and the Camp David Agreement. This was viewed as a break from the Arab ranks and the League’s headquarters were relocated to Tunisia and headed by Al-Shazli Al-Qoleibi.

The League returned to Cairo once again at the beginning of the 1990s and the tradition of an Egyptian secretary-general was restored. Esmat Abdel-Meguid was followed by Amr Moussa in the role, despite repeated attempts by Yemen and Algeria to nominate other candidates.

But it seems that the winds of change in Arab states brought on by the January 25 Revolution have put the League’s seat at the centre of a storm, and now Egypt could lose its lead. There were rumours during the previous regime that Mufid Shehab, the former state minister for legal affairs, was being groomed for the position of secretary-general, which aroused controversy as he is not a diplomat. However, these criticisms were ignored because former Egyptian foreign minister Ahmed Abul Gheit was only the executor of policies.

Egypt’s incumbent foreign minister, Nabil El-Arabi, was mentioned as a candidate before his Cabinet appointment. His candidacy has since gained momentum as an entry point to the top job at the League, which has traditionally be assigned to Egyptian foreign ministers. But El-Arabi has denied that he is a candidate and confirmed he will remain in his position as foreign minister.

Next to be floated as a contender was Mustafa El-Fiqi, former assistant to the foreign minister and former chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the dissolved parliament. El-Fiqi, who touts himself as an Arab nationalist thinker, has been officially nominated for the job by Egypt. His backers, however, did not predict that activists were also operating in diplomatic circles.

Releases began circulating criticising the nomination of the man who has visited the League’s headquarters every single day since Amr Moussa’s announced he would resign to run for president. El-Fiqi was spotted behind the scenes in several meetings, including that of Arab parliamentarians, to promote his candidacy. Meanwhile, he has been criticised by the April 6 Youth Movement as a symbol of the former regime, who supported and attempted to polish the image of ousted president Hosni Mubarak, even as Egypt was rejecting his re-election. Even at the most critical moments of the revolution, El-Fiqi was calling for Mubarak to remain in office until the end of his term. He is on the record as describing Mubarak’s son as a successful and popular young man. All of these add to detract from El-Fiqi’s credibility, especially as these statements became widely viewed on YouTube.

It is also noteworthy that El-Fiqi has in the past failed to become chairman of the Arab parliament after Libya’s leadership was handed over to the young Kuwaiti MP Ali Al-Daqbassi.

El-Fiqi met with many of the revolution’s youth alliance to refute this impression of him and re-market himself, but to no avail. The meetings failed to change anything, as has been noted in many statements on the internet by political forces and movements. El-Fiqi’s ambition was dealt a fatal blow once Saudi Arabia entered the fray by using El-Fiqi as leverage to prevent Mubarak’s prosecution. During a secret visit to Cairo, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal offered his country’s support for El-Fiqi’s candidacy in return for stopping the prosecution of Mubarak; Cairo turned the offer down.

There have also been suggestions to rotate the position of secretary-general among the League’s members, according to a Yemeni-Libyan proposal. This would entail Moussa staying on in another position while a new secretary-general is selected from any Arab state.

In response, thousands of internet activists have nominated Ahmed Youssef Ahmed, the director of the Arab Studies Academy affiliated to the Arab League. The move was out of fear that the position would go to Qatar’s Abdel-Rahman Al-Attiya, the former chairman of the GCC, although observers believe the post could remain vacant for some time to come – especially that the Arab summit in Baghdad during which the new secretary-general would be chosen has been postponed indefinitely.

Ahmed told Ahram Online that there are three obstacles to his candidacy. First, Egypt has already made an official nomination and that as Egypt is recovering (from its revolution) it should not be challenged. While he was pleased that the youth nominated him, he said this position has historically been given to former foreign ministers. Even though the current candidate (El-Fiqi) has never been foreign minister, he was close enough to this position when he worked at the foreign ministry.

Second, Ahmed says he is an academic who does not have political experience for the position, and prefers to remain as such. Finally, he said, current Arab discourse does not suit his character and that Arab policies use means that he may be unwilling to deal with at such a senior level. He prefers to remain free of such restraints.

Meanwhile on Wednesday, a group called The National Front for Justice held a demonstration in front of the League’s headquarters in protest at El-Fiqi’s nomination.

“Egyptians reject El-Fiqi to be their nominee to head the Arab League, we will take to the street again until the Egyptian government nominate somebody else for the position,” said writer and commentator Belal Fadel.

Marwa Alaa, a member of the April 6 Movement, says that millions of Egyptians and Arabs nominated Ahmed Youssef Ahmed for this position, while El-Fiqi is rejected by all the Arab people. She added that the Egyptian government has an obligation to listen to the voice of the Egyptian people of rejecting him.

Other youth groups suggested the former Al-Azhar spokesperson, Mohamed Refaa El-Tahtawy, to replace Amr Moussa.

“El-Fiqi was one of Mubarak’s men and played an essential part to manipulate the public opinion in favour of the former regime,” said Aymen Amer, member of the Revolutionary Youth Coalition.

Some activists, such as Hamdy El-Fakhrany, filed a complaint to the administrative court against the foreign minister’s decision to nominate El-Fiqi.

El-Fakhrany stated in his complaint that El-Fiqi was a senior member in Mubarak’s ruling party who was fraudulently elected to parliament in 2005, as testified to by 137 judges who supervised the election.

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