Egypt asserts its seniority over Arab states to serve West’s interests

Developing Just Leadership

M.S. Ahmed

Dhu al-Hijjah 05, 1421 2001-03-01

Occupied Arab World

by M.S. Ahmed (Occupied Arab World, Crescent International Vol. 30, No. 1, Dhu al-Hijjah, 1421)

The speed with which president Husni Mubarak has succeeded in imposing his will on Arab leaders, including ‘president’ Yasser Arafat and the Arab League, confirms that Egypt’s claim to regional superpower status is not entirely hollow. Not only has Cairo managed to force other Arab capitals to accept Amr Musa, the Egyptian foreign minister, as the unchallenged candidate to take over as secretary-general of the Arab League in May; it has also usurped the function of ‘negotiating’ with Israel, the US and European countries ‘on behalf’ of the Palestinians, reducing Arafat to the status of errand-boy and other Arab leaders to uncomplaining onlookers. Yet Mubarak flexes Cairo’s ‘superpower’ muscles mainly to serve the regional interests of the “only world superpower”, and to massage Egyptian national pride for his own ends.

Mubarak nominated Amr Musa as the Arab League’s secretary-general on 15 February, after ‘persuading’ Ali Saleh, the Yemeni president, to withdraw his country’s candidate, a former prime minister. He then contacted other Arab leaders to ask them to endorse Amr Musa’s candidacy, which they did. Even Algeria’s president, Abdul-Aziz Bouteflika, who had reportedly planned to nominate his own candidate, said that he was “quite comfortable” with Cairo’s choice.

The speed with which Arab capitals fell into line disposed of rumours that several Arab governments had been planning to challenge Egypt’s monopoly of the Arab League’s leadership, after the end of the present secretary-general’s term of office in May. Dr Ismat Abdul-Majid, himself an Egyptian foreign minister, will hand over to his successor, who is expected to be elected at the Arab League summit in Amman, Jordan, on March 5.

Since the Arab League’s formation in 1945, all its secretary-generals but one have been Egyptian, and Cairo has always been its headquarters, except for a brief period after Egypt signed the Camp David accords with Israel in 1978 and was expelled from the League. The headquarters then moved to Tunisia and a Tunisian elected as secretary-general. But it was not long before the Arab League’s members realised that without Egypt the League was an empty shell, and reversed its decision.

Until recently, differences among Arab countries — particularly after the second Gulf war (1991) — and the limited powers of scope of the secretary-general had cripple the League to the extent that even annual and emergency summits could not be convened. This seemed to suit most Arab governments: they did not want a strong organisation taking radical positions on Arab issues. But recent events in the Middle East, particularly the intifada in Palestine, which many fear could develop into a wider intifada against pro-Western Arab regimes, have transformed the situation. The threat — taken very seriously in Arab capitals — appears to have created a need for an Arab organisation that its members can use to engage in harmless anti-Israel and anti-west rhetoric.

The rules of the Arab League have been amended recently to give the secretary-general new powers to convene emergency summits whenever he sees fit. This has the effect of making summits a more available vehicle for rhetoric, without any member having to take responsibility for convening them. And the appointment of a tried and tested (and therefore trusted) ‘moderate’ as secretary-general is sufficient to guarantee that the organisation’s role will remain rhetorical.

Mubarak is not relying solely on Musa; he is also taking the precaution of co-ordinating policy with other Arab leaders before the summit. In mid-February, for instance, he embarked on a tour of Arab countries — including Saudi Arabia, Oman, Tunisia and Kuwait — to agree a common stand on Palestine and Iraq. All three issues are to be discussed at the Arab League summit in Jordan in March.

That Mubarak will adopt a ‘moderate’ line on these issues is not in doubt. He is not even expected to be strongly critical of Ariel Sharon, the new Israeli prime minister, let alone of the Americans. The election of Sharon as prime minister on February 6 will cast a shadow over the summit, with the Syrian-led group of countries favouring a tougher stand against Sharon, and other states like Jordan and Egypt trying to advocate a more moderate stance. Active support for the intifada is unlikely to be proposed seriously by any member.

The bombing of Baghdad on February 16 by US and British warplanes will raise the temperature at the summit, but will not transform the ‘moderate’ members into radical revolutionaries . Their reactions to the bombings indicate as much: Mubarak said that they were “not helpful and complicated things”, adding that Iraq is not “a threat to the world”. US Secretary of State Colin Powell, due to arrive in the region as Crescent International went to press, will recognise this as harmless, rhetoric. He is more likely to be impressed than concerned.

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