Nabil al-Araby attended his first official Arab League meeting as the body’s new Secretary General on Saturday night amid hopes that the rising star, lauded for his short term as Egypt’s Foreign Minister, would breathe new life into what many consider to be an ineffective organization.
But after a three-hour closed door meeting, the Arab League returned a statement on the uprising in Syria that called for a “limit” to the violence but stopped short of blaming the governing regime for its bloody crackdown and lacked any indication of further action to be taken if its request went unheeded.
The statement, which has already been rejected by the Syrian delegation, suggests that Araby’s prestige in Egyptian politics may not be enough to bring reform to an Arab League packed with representatives from authoritarian regimes anxious about their own fates, and that the 66-year-old organization has yet to adjust to the radical changes sweeping the Middle East in the wake of Arab revolutions.
“He can't do anything,” said Walid Kaziha, a professor of political science at the American University in Cairo. “I think he's overwhelmed by the power configuration across the Arab world and the Saudis' supremacy of the League.”
Araby garnered widespread praise for his two-month stint as Egypt’s Foreign Minister by relaxing restrictions on the border with Gaza and rehabilitating the country’s relationship with Iran. Both moves responded to popular demand among Egyptians and signaled a new approach to the country’s foreign policy agenda, which has long been dominated by heavy US and Gulf influence.
Many believe Araby's appointment to the Arab League was a convenient way to sideline a politician who had the potential to significantly alter Egypt's foreign policy. When former President Hosni Mubarak was still in power, sensitive foreign issues regarding Gaza and the Nile Basin were essentially dealt with through a security approach, consulting the intelligence apparatus rather than the Foreign Ministry.
“Even though he was quite popular in Egypt, there were others who found Nabil al-Araby to be someone who develops his own foreign policy,” said Gamal Sultan, director of Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.
Powerful figures who favored political continuity after the revolution were angered by his public rapprochement with Iran. “It is safe to say the military [pushed Araby out],” Sultan continued. “This is the strongest source of continuity in Egyptian politics right now.”
Araby has denied that he was forced out of the position.
At the Arab League headquarters on Saturday night, Araby put his policy of reform on the table when he called on the delegates to take heed of the upheaval across the region that has led to the fall of leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and now Libya.
"The Arab League is being pressured by Arab public opinion to make more effort in the coming period,” he said. “The Arab League should make its role clear.”
Though the statement expressed clear support for the citizen protests in the Arab world, it suggested little change in the League’s capacity or role within the region.
“It's difficult for the Arab League as an institution to develop consensus on stronger regulations vis-a-vis Syria,” said Sultan. “The Arab League doesn't have many effective tools other than declarations.”
According to Kaziha, the Arab League is incapable of effectively criticizing Syria for its human rights abuses because the League is packed with regimes that have similarly low regard for individual liberties.
“Nabil al-Araby telling the Syrian regime, 'You are too authoritarian,' is not useful,” he said. “The first thing they will ask him is, 'Who sent you?'”
If the Arab League lacks moral credibility as well as tangible mechanisms for applying pressure, it will likely continue to find it difficult to play a strong role in divisive emergencies without considerable reform.
In an interview with Al Jazeera English that aired on 5 August, Araby acknowledged the scale of the challenge he faces. “I agree that the [Arab League’s] record of implementation is poor,” he said. “Whether we can change this or not I don't know. I will try to do my best.”
Sultan said he sees little chance for reform. “I don't have much hope in the short term, at least,” he said. “The Arab governments are quite busy handling their own domestic affairs.”
“I don't think Nabil al-Araby on his own will be able to change [the Arab League]. I think he has fallen into a trap,” said Kaziha. “He's a man who is [only] capable of taking decisions within an Egyptian context.”
As Araby warned delegates inside the Arab League’s headquarters of the rising expectations of Arab public opinion, about 100 mostly Syrian protesters gathered outside to chant slogans against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
One man carried a sign addressed to the Arab League that read: “Saying you’re sorry, denying or condemning, is not enough because blood is flowing.”
The protesters banged on the metal gates that ring the headquarters, prompting Egyptian riot police to form a thin line between the crowd and the walls protecting the Arab League’s opulent garden.
They could shout all they wanted from the street, but the building was not to be touched.