After Mideast Uprisings, Will the Arab League Finally Lead?

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Its call for a no-fly zone over Libya could set a new precedent for protecting people over regimes

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Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa attends an emergency meeting among the Arab League foreign ministers, held to discuss issues about Libya, at the headquarters in Cairo March 2, 2011, by Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters.

In a 1946 photo of one of the first sessions of the Arab League Council, two dozen men sit around a long, dark table littered with pens and notebooks and heavy glass ashtrays, many of them sporting red fezzes, thick glasses, and some degree of mustache.

Four years after the photo was taken, Jordan's King Abdullah absorbed the West Bank of Palestine into his kingdom, a move opposed by the Arab League. But in the face of British and American U.S. support for the king, the Arab League's opposition crumbled. "It was probably at this point," writes historian Adeed Dawisha, "that the Arab public became skeptical of the Arab League and of unity initiatives embarked upon by the Arab governments."

Not much has changed in the half century since, save for the fezzes, which eventually went out of style.

For the last few decades, the Arab League has symbolized the division and stasis that has plagued the region as a whole, making its recent flurry of activity around the crisis in Libya all the more remarkable. On Saturday, the Arab League took the extraordinary step of recognizing Libya's rebel movement and asking the international community to impose a no-fly zone over the country. Despite a long history of ignoring most of the worst abuses by Arab leaders, the group is now seeking the ouster of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, who has been a member so long that his seat conforms to the shape of his behind.

"The Arab League was always about those presidents for life," says Roger Owen, a professor of Middle East history at Harvard. "It functioned as kind of a club of elderly presidents. This decision to request a no-fly zone is a test of their ability to support this change in the Arab world."

The League was founded in 1945, the same year as the United Nations, at a time when the region was still dotted with monarchies installed by the British. Its Charter seems designed to serve the interest of a ruling elite: the words "democracy," "rights," or even "citizen/s" are nowhere to be found.

Instead, as set out in Article II: "The League has as its purpose the strengthening of the relations between the member-states, the coordination of their policies in order to achieve co-operation between them and to safeguard their independence and sovereignty; and a general concern with the affairs and interests of the Arab countries." In other words, its mission is to protect nations, not people. More tellingly, Article VIII notes, "Each member-state shall respect the systems of government established in the other member-states and regard them as exclusive concerns of those states. Each shall pledge to abstain from any action calculated to change established systems of government." It's no surprise to see governments safeguarding the status quo, but rarely is that objective stated so transparently.

Certainly no one was more established than Qaddafi, who has ruled Libya for forty years, and whose elaborate robes brought back some of the flair that disappeared with those red hats. So why did the Arab League, after tolerating him and his blink-and-you'll-miss-a-human-rights-violation regime, decide to act now?

"Qaddafi was never popular amongst his Arab brothers or sisters," says Abdal Aleem El Abeyad, who retired in 2009 as Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa's spokesperson. Referring to an incident at a summit in Doha "He was always a maverick. He behaved really badly," Abeyad said, referring to an "incident" at the 2009 Doha summit in which Qaddafi called King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia a "liar," a "British product" and an "American ally" before stalking out of the room. "He had no respect for his colleagues, who also had no respect for him."

Speaking by phone from his Egyptian beach house, he welcomed Saturday's decision to request a no-fly zone from the United Nations Security Council. "Usually in these matters, they prefer not to take a stand."

The organization has a 65-year history of not taking stands. Notable exceptions include its eventual condemnation of Saddam's invasion of Kuwait and a comprehensive peace plan for Palestine and Israel, which, after its launch in 2002, was roundly ignored by the rest of the world. Even on the peace process, which has been the focus of most of the League's attentions, its stance was more of a slouch: plenty of attitude, but no spine.

Because of internal divisions between individual members, the League practices what Robert Danin, a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the former head of the office of the Quartet
called, "lowest common denominator politics, which often means simply being critical of Israel." He explained, "It's extremely ineffectual. It's a body that projects collectively the face, if not the will, of the Arab people."

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Anna Louie Sussman is a New York-based freelance writer for major U.S. magazines and newspapers, and the senior editor and writer for womenintheworld.org.

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