After Mideast Uprisings, Will the Arab League Finally Lead?

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

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."


Even Saturday's decision was not unanimous. Syria and Algeria reportedly objected, not because they'll miss Qaddafi's flamboyant outfits and crazy talk, but most likely out of fear that they might also be taken to task for their own less-than-wholesome approaches to governance, say Arab League-watchers.

"The request certainly creates a double standard of sorts," said Charles Kupchan, Professor of International Affairs at Georgetown University and Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "Some of these regimes are very sensitive to claims of illegitimacy from the West."

Several analysts point to the possibility of a resurgent, post-Tahrir Egyptian assertiveness, reminiscent of the 1950s, when a growing sentiment of pan-Arabism took off, inspired by President Gamal Abdel Nasser's Egyptian nationalism.

"Over the last decade, Egypt had steadily lost its place in Arab society," said Richard W. Murphy, an expert with the Middle East Institute and a former ambassador to Syria, Mauritania and Saudi Arabia, noting that the Egyptian professional class, once recruited and respected around the region, had lost much of its prestige. "So after Tahrir Square, this looked like a flaming display of pride, and a display of leadership and where Moussa's own hopes are at there."

Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at
Columbia University, pointed to Egypt's new Foreign Minister, Nabil al-Araby, as a key mover. With his appointment after the revolution, Egypt is a playing a more active role in the region and on behalf of Arab peoples rather than governments, despite the country's economic integration with Libya, which might ordinarily give it pause.

"Because of the large number of their citizens (over a million in the case of Egypt) who work in Libya, there has been a certain reluctance on the part of post-revolutionary Egypt and Tunisia to take a high profile, this in spite of their sympathy with the opponents to Qaddafi," Khalidi said by email.

Former Ambassador Donald F. McHenry, Distinguished Professor in the Practice of Diplomacy at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, suggested that Amr Moussa's own political ambitions spurred this decisive action. "He's the Secretary General of the Arab League, who wants to put forward his own democratic credentials because he wants to run for President."

But until the Arab League's membership consists of more democratically elected presidents and less autocrats, it won't reflect the will of the Arab people. While the hard stance against Qaddafi may look like as though the "winds of change" are dusting off some of the Arab League's cobwebs, Gaddafi could just be a sacrificial lamb, an easily expendable dictator whose ouster serves to shore up the position of those still in power.

"These other regimes face popular uprisings of a sort they have never witnessed, and supporting the no-fly zone can bolster their credibility," said Kupchan. "If you combine that street cred with some domestic reforms, then some of these regimes can maintain control."

Whether or not this decision sets a precedent remains to be seen. Jean-Pierre Filiu, a professor of Middle East studies at Columbia University and the Institut d'√Čtudes Politiques de Paris (Sciences Po), noted, "It's the first time the League is accepting that one of its own members' sovereignty can be infringed," a development he sees as "enormous." If that's the case, its enormity should be balanced against a long history of existing as what Egyptian political commentator Mona el-Tahawy called "a totally discredited organization."

Asked if she could point to a notable Arab League political victory over its sixty-five-year existence, el-Tahawy paused for no less than a full millisecond before answering.

"Up till now, they've done absolutely nothing."

Photo: One of the first Arab League meetings in 1946, from Albert Hourani's A History of The Arab Peoples