Rotating the Office of Arab League Secretary General

Dr. Ahmed Youssef Ahmed: Rotating the Office of Arab League Secretary General

  • 30 April 2011

Even before the January 25 Revolution in Egypt, which eventually toppled the Mubarak regime, the proposal for the rotation of the office of Arab League Secretary General among its member states as opposed to restricting their appointment from the country that hosts Arab League headquarters had been mooted from time to time. It is pointed out that there is nothing in the text of the League’s charter that might suggest that the office of the Secretary General be held only by an Egyptian. However, the appointment of the Secretary General from Egypt has become the norm, primarily because the League’s headquarters (in accordance with the charter) is located in Egypt and because the country holds a special status and influence in the Arab world. However, the situation is fast changing and with it is the status and influence of the Egyptian role, which has clearly been on the decline. Therefore, the proponents of the aforementioned proposal are calling for a change in the ‘enforced’ convention.

Egypt’s response has predictably rejected the proposition, as was stated by the foreign minister of the former regime Ahmad Abu Al-Gheit (after Algerian call for the rotation of the office) when he said that the post has always been held by Egyptians and this would continue.

When Algeria made the proposal for rotating the aforementioned office it was difficult to determine whether it had mooted it out of dissatisfaction with the current performance of the Arab League. However, any right-minded person would understand that the present dismal state of the League is not because of its Secretary General but due to structural problems, and the then Secretary General himself proved that the Egyptian “character” of the office did not affect its “Arab orientation.”

In addition, it seems Algerian diplomacy has been seeking a more wide-ranging reform through this initiative. The fervent diplomatic activity in its wake confirms this point and shows other parties the way Arab affairs should be conducted and shows how the policy of rejection and condemnation should be replaced with policies of action and political will.

In this way, the suggestion for the rotation of the office of Secretary General has become a starting point for a comprehensive overhaul and not just an idea that some might falsely assume as rising out of a grudge against Egypt and its policies.

Undoubtedly, the speech by Amr Moussa at the opening of the Sirte summit in March 2010, gave impetus to the talk about the rotation of the post of the Secretary General. In his speech, Amr Moussa clearly stated that he was more than satisfied with his two terms as Arab League Secretary General, thereby implying that he was not willing to hold the post for a third term.

His speech opened the door to fresh calls for rotation of the coveted post. Thereafter, Egyptian diplomacy started redoubling efforts to ensure the post. As mentioned above, the Minister of Foreign Affairs at that time said that the office had always been and will always be held by an Egyptian. It would have been better if he had formulated his remarks differently and referred to the Arab dimension, as a diplomatic and tactical move to avert the ensuing controversy. He could have said that Egypt would not abandon its national commitment of playing a leading role in joint Arab endeavor or would have phrased his statement differently in order to give the impression that the issue was not an Egyptian one.

Anyway, in this battle Egyptian diplomacy did not have a legal standing as indicated before but a strong convention, which has been followed since the establishment of the Arab League in 1945. There was a brief period when a high ranking Tunisian official held this post, namely Chedli Kelibi. This interregnum occurred when the League’s headquarters had shifted to Tunisia because of a dispute over the US-Egypt signing of the Camp David Accord in 1978 and the subsequent signing of the Egypt–Israeli peace treaty in 1979. Even in this exceptional situation, the office of the Secretary General was headed by an official from the country where the headquarters was located.

In fact, there are two schools of thought on this matter in the Arab world. One school contends that having the Secretary General from the country hosting the League’s headquarters facilitates the League in coordinating with member states, thereby removing several obstacles in the work of the League. However, the problem with this arrangement is that the Secretary General could be influenced by the policies of his country and would behave as more of an envoy of that country in the organization. The other school of thought seeks to avoid this possibility by appointing a Secretary General from a country that has policies contrary to the one hosting the League’s headquarters. It cannot be claimed that the position of any of these schools dominates the functioning of the joint Arab endeavor, as some organizations in the League support one standpoint while others hold the contrary view.

It is noteworthy that Egyptian diplomacy of the former regime had its own view in this regard. It focused on keeping the post of the Secretary General of the Arab League to Egypt as the umbrella under which all organizations of joint Arab endeavor operate and leave other posts to other Arab countries in general. On more than one occasion, Egyptian leadership has withdrawn its candidate from the race of leadership of other Arab organization if it found that the issue would cause a problem with one or more Arab countries. In several instances, it has taken the decision to support the candidature of one of those countries in some organizations without any bargaining. It also took a decision not to keep a leading post in other organizations when the term of the Egyptian head ended and did not insist that the successor be an Egyptian or be supported by a candidate from another country.

In light of this policy, the threat to the “Egyptian-ness” for the post of the Secretary General of the Arab League will come as a blow to the role of Egypt in the joint Arab endeavor. If one notes the nationalities of those leading specialized Arab organizations one will find only Dr. Wadouda Badran, Director General of the Arab Women Organization, an organization that still has an unclear relation with the joint Arab system. Therefore, Egypt’s losing the post of the Secretary General of the Arab League would mean a lot for its Arab role and its status among Arab countries. Naturally, Egyptian diplomacy would feel the blow, particularly in the current situation, when its people are clamoring for the restoration of the country’s earlier predominance and they will not find the change acceptable.

The date for selecting the new Secretary General is fast approaching and the reappointment of Amr Moussa is now clearly out of the question, even on a temporary basis, following confirmation that he would contest in the next Egyptian presidential elections. The candidate in contention for the position of Arab League Secretary General is from Qatar, H.E. Abdul Rahman Al-Attieh, who is the former Secretary General of the Arab Gulf Cooperation Council. For its part, Egypt has a candidate for the position in Dr. Mustafa Al-Fiqi, who has been chairperson of the Egyptian parliamentary foreign relations committee for many years. He has also held the post of the Egyptian permanent member at the Arab League and is well known for his sterling contribution to Arab thought and Arab affairs in general.

Usually, countries do not necessarily select the Secretary General based on personal qualifications but on the basis of his association with the country to which he belongs. Still, the personal views of the candidates could play an important role in his selection, as the Sudanese government did when it refused to accept an Egyptian candidate because he took adversarial stances against Sudan’s current regime.

The Qatari candidate depends on the active diplomacy of his country that has achieved a position on major Arab issues, in addition to the fact that this diplomacy relies on huge financial backing. The Egyptian candidate is relying on the weight of Egypt and the growing popular desire both within and outside the country for the reinstatement of an effective Egyptian role in the Arab system. His impressive resume also appears appropriate for the post, although his detractors among the young revolutionaries and the Egyptian elite could force countries to turn down his nomination for the position.

It seems that Arab countries that are divided over the selection of the Secretary General fall into four groups. There are those who have clearly declared their support for an Egyptian candidate, like Saudi Arabia. Others have openly objected to this option, like Sudan. There is also a third group represented by Algeria that believes that the choice of the Secretary General should be reached through consensus and not through elections in order to prevent further division of the League. Finally, some countries still remain undecided over the issue. In any case, there is no doubt the next Secretary General will be faced with a fast changing and highly complex Arab situation, as for the first time in its history the Arab League has adopted a clear stance on internal developments in Arab states in the wake of the current wave of change in the Arab world. In addition, if this wave ebbs it would have left behind a new Arab situation, especially if religious forces take over regimes in a few Arab countries.