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Mission impossible? Solving the Arab Political Puzzle

Mission impossible? Solving the Arab Political Puzzle

The new secretary-general is set to be reelected this Sunday. Whoever it is, they’ll have to deal with the seismic shifts in the Arab world’s political map.

May 15, 2011 2:01 by

Whoever is selected the new Arab League secretary-general, he has a momentous challenge: dealing with the stupendous changes that are rearranging the Middle East’s political map. These are tumultuous, unprecedented times and they need an organisation which can match the occasion. If that cannot be, then this Arab Spring threatens to make the League irrelevant.

Much will depend on the member states themselves and on who will be in charge. Arab foreign ministers will meet in Oman today to discuss who would lead the League after Amr Moussa, whose mandate ends today.

Two candidates — Egyptian Mustafa El-Fiki and Qatar’s Abdel-Rahman Al-Attiyah — are in the running for the position. Both are well known in the Arab world and either could secure the two-thirds of the votes of the 22-member states needed for the job. Al-Attiyah is the former chairman of the GCC, while El-Fiki is a former member of Parliament. Both have admirable CVs and appear to be running neck-and-neck for the pan-Arab post. But from some quarters El-Fiki is being criticised given his previous membership in the National Democratic Party, once chaired by the ousted President Hosni Mubarak. El-Fiki was close to the Mubarak regime, including his years as a diplomatic adviser to the presidency.

Still, El-Fiki has the weight of history on his side. Egypt, the venue of the League’s headquarters, has monopolised the top job. The only time Egypt lost hold of the position was during the years of the Arab boycott of Egypt over its peace treaty with Israel. At the time, the job and the headquarters went to Tunisia.

Historically, the Arab League has been accused of having no teeth and as such, a weak bite. Over the 60 years of its existence, the organisation has generally tried to emphasise reconciliation. It did not suspend the membership of Iraq over its invasion of Kuwait in 1990, and it has not suspended the membership or participation of Sudan over alleged crimes against humanity committed in Darfur.

Recently, the Arab League has shown at once its importance and ineptitude. In March, the US and its NATO allies thought it imperative that they receive the League’s green light before pounding Muammar Qaddafi’s forces. But the League soon reverted to traditional form when its endless bickering got so bad it felt compelled to delay this year’s annual meeting, which was slated to take place in Baghdad back in March, until next year.

The approval of a new secretary-general requires the convocation of an Arab summit. But now the choice could be made at a lower level — foreign ministers or permanent representatives.

The post could remain vacant for some time to come. In a worst-case scenario, the deputy secretary-general, veteran Algerian diplomat Ahmed Ben Helli could run the show while the Arab world comes to terms with new realities and agrees on a unanimous choice.

Those realities involve one insurrection after another in the Arab world, and the unpredictability of tomorrow. Today, it is not clear when the situation in Libya, Syria or Yemen will stabilise. It is not possible, either, to assess which country will next call for greater democratisation.

What is hoped for is that in this political turbulence sweeping across the Arab world, the Arab League rises a notch or two to stay with the times and, if possible, ahead of it.

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