In a few days’ time, the Arab League will begin a new phase in its life. Led by a new Secretary-General chosen unanimously by the member states, Egypt’s foreign minister Nabil El Arabi, it stands before a whole new set of opportunities and challenges. El Arabi will succeed Amr Moussa who, following the Egyptian revolution and the incumbent race for presidential elections, has chosen to dive head first into domestic politics. The new secretary-general must cooperate with all the Arab states to get past the current bottleneck somehow. El Arabi takes up the post after a very short term as foreign minister, during which he was nonetheless able to restore some lustre to Egypt’s by then dulled regional role, adopting new policies on Africa, Palestine, Israel and other heavyweight forces – so much so that many perceived his approach as a revolution in Egyptian foreign policy to complement the revolution that ousted former President Hosni Mubarak. How much of this positive energy might he bring to the league?
El Arabi assumes this position amid consensus that the league requires an Egyptian at the helm as per tradition: Egypt should lead the Arab community to safeguard its own revolution and maintain its central role in Arab affairs. The new phase comes in the wake of uprisings that have raised the expectations of the people sometimes beyond available resources and may rise further as more of them manage to bring down regimes or set off reforms, especially in the monarchies, in ways that may subject the Arab League to monitoring by the people. This will force the organisation to be more transparent and forthcoming in admitting errors and faults. The people will no longer have the patience for the policies of concealment and cover-up that have typified its performance in the past 60 years.
Be that as it may, El Arabi arrives to a general sense of disapproval regarding the Arab League’s position on many pertinent issues. It has not taken a position on what is happening in Syria, for example, despite the horrors to which unarmed civilians are being subjected; it is silent on the complicated developments in Libya; it plays no role in Yemen; and it has stayed away from the Palestinian conciliation, etc. If some analysts are dismayed that Egypt will lose a diplomat of El Arabi’s calibre, others hope that his presence in the Arab League will be compensation enough, that he will restore to the organisation its ability to close ranks and provide adequate Arab representation in the regional and international domains. They hope he will undertake serious structural reforms of the Arab League and its agencies, though such monumental work is not for one man alone however impressive his practical, professional and administrative credentials. No less than an entire overhaul of the Arab order is required, and that remains conditional on the sincere cooperation of all member states.
Several points have to be taken into account before a picture of the future league emerges:
First, as an institution, the Arab League is a reflection of the orders of its member states and depends entirely on their commitment to enforcing its role, whether they choose to reform or maintain it. It will never be independent of its constituent governments, but will always express their ambitions, capabilities and willingness to take positive or negative action. Secondly, the Secretary-General is ultimately an employee bound by the outlook of the governments that make up the organisation he heads. He may be able to present a new vision, but according to the charter of the league without the consent of members he will be unable to implement them. Thirdly, the order governing the league is a network of agencies and agreements involving a huge volume of complicated interactions, many of them subject to political, economic, social, security and media conditions.
Despite the criticism to which it is subject – and many would disagree with this point – the Arab League provides many Arab states with a modicum of security, including them in an umbrella of nations rather than leaving them isolated. There are definite international benefits to maintaining the Arab League as the representative of the Arab world on regional and international fronts, the better to prevent the region from falling apart. Securing the support of the organisation for an international cause amounts to support by all the Arab states even if some of them disagree. A recent example of this is the decision by the Arab Foreign Ministers’ Council to call on the UN to take appropriate action to protect the people of Libya, which provided the UN intervention against the regime of Colonel Gaddafi with Arab cover. When the Arab League was unable to arrive at a near-unanimous decision on what is happening in Syria, by contrast, the UN in turn was unable to take strong decision against the Assad regime.
At other difficult times in the history of the Arab world, proposed scenarios for the organisation evolved around four possibilities: keeping the Arab League as is, having it resume its routine work without addressing any particular cause or issue; secondly, reducing the role of the organisation to make way for other regional or Middle East blocs; thirdly, dividing the Arab League into several smaller organisations; and fourthly, undertaking structural reforms with the aim of invigorating its performance and enabling it to become an engine for effective joint action.
Experience has shown that the Arab League was never on the brink of collapse and that its resilience continues even if by a thread. While it has not been effective on many Arab issues, it has continued to be valuable because it provides Arab states with a modicum of unity and protection against the ambitions of friends and foes alike. This became apparent at three critical moments in recent Arab history: when Egypt signed a peace agreement with Israel in March, 1979, resulting in its removal from the Arab League; in the period following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of a new, uni- as opposed to bi-polar world order led by Washington, and expectations of great changes in regional and international organisations; thirdly, after the occupation of Iraq by the US and UK in March, 2003, when there was much pessimism about the viability of the Arab League and the Arab order as a whole. On these and other occasions the Arab states have pooled the will to keep their organisation intact and work on reforming it at however painfully slow a pace.