15 APRIL 2011


Who will be the next Secretary-General of the League Arab states?

With dramatic changes in several Arab countries and the delay in holding an Arab summit, intensive contacts are underway to explore varied options for the post of Secretary-General of the Arab League. AmrMoussa, who had the job for two-terms, will be running for President of Egypt. He already indicated he will not seek a third term at the League. The next candidate will have to be selected at the Arab Summit of Heads of State. The Summit was originally scheduled at the end of March, but is postponed until May in Baghdad. No interim meeting could be held, as ironically, the Presidency at the moment is supposedly under Libyan dictator Qaddafi. Obviously, members of the League are not keen on going with him street to street, or 'zangazanga', as he termed it. To the contrary, they offered to help enforce a no-fly zone on Libya. Usually, Egypt, the host country, insists on the post. The only exception was when the League headquarters moved to Tunis and Tunisian, and Shazli Kleibi took over. After that shift, former Egyptian Foreign Minister Ismat Abdel-Mageed was elected.

There was rumbling by some in Algeria about the time Moussa was elected. The Algerians had intended to put the name of the industrious UN Envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, who had served in the Arab League at different capacities. Algeria is again raising the question, but it is unclear whether this time Brahimi is their actual candidate or if it will be someone else. Sensitivities between Egypt and Algeria were highlighted during the Africa football cup in 2010. Despite a new regime in Egypt, it may be too early to overcome a public sentiment on both side, although Brahimi could be more at home in Cairo where he and his family lived for years, rather than Algiers, which he has only visited during the last two decades. There is no doubt that he would be an outstanding candidate, if he decides to run. His exceptional performance in other assignments speaks for itself.

Lebanon could produce a candidate, but regrettably, in its current fractured political status it would be difficult to obtain unanimous support.

With the current status of "Arab awakening", chances of a consensus on someone from a particular country would be very limited. Egypt may find leeway in its new political climate to propose a name, as usual, from a list of experienced diplomats, starting with the new Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nabil al-Araby. Actually, his family name is quite fitting, meaning "the Arab". Other candidates would include Nabil Fahmy, former Ambassador to Washington, who was brought up in an Arab diplomatic atmosphere. Also, another candidate would be the current Permanent Representative of the Egypt to the United Nations, Majed Abdelaziz. Proposing a woman, like Ms. Feyza Aboulnaga, would certainly be a historic precedent though it could startle several Arab heads of state. There will be pressure from a number of influential Egyptians interested in having a prestigious regional post in the centre of their capital. They include: Mustapha, head of "Parliamentary" Foreign Affairs Committee, and Yahya El-Jamal, newly appointed Deputy Prime Minister. A third official candidate is prominent economist and former U.N./ESCWA Executive Secretary Hazem El-Beblawi.

Although the Egyptian government proposed the name of El-Faki on 11 April, the nomination was swiftly denounced by the Youth protesters co-ordination group; in a strongly worded statement it described him as part and parcel of the Mubarak regime where he served as the outgoing President's Secretary until 1992. There were other critical media comments, indicating that his official candidature was not likely to get unanimous nor even majority support. It may be that the government had to submit it under the internal pressure from internal powers it had to accommodate at the time and then move ahead to adapt to changing requirements.

There is a new angle these days -- a possibility of having someone from the Gulf. There are whispered reports about a deal for Qatar to obtain the post. This would obviously require agreement by Saudi Arabia, the biggest Gulf power and major player in decision-making. A likely Saudi candidate, Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal has inconvenient health problems requiring special daily attention. His brother, Prince Turky al-Faisal, has been very active on the regional and international scene over the past few years, on behalf of King Abdullah. He would be royally qualified. However, it is unusual for Saudi officials to take centre stage; they are more inclined to discreet operational roles. On the other end of the Gulf, Oman is similarly discreet. Its Foreign Minister, Yusuf bin Alawi, one of the most experienced Arab diplomats, is more inclined to operate effectively with less media coverage. At this stage, Qatar, which is actively seeking international visibility, will certainly be delighted to get the post. An obvious candidate is the Secretary-General of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Abdel Rahman Al-Atiyyah, who has been stationed in Saudi Arabia, which gave him an open channel with key officials in Riyadh. He happens to be leaving his post at around this time, handing over to a candidate from Bahrain, another Gulf neighbor whose sensitivity would have otherwise required amenable handling, Dr. Al-Atiyyah, who before his current post was Director-General of his country's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and before that held key diplomatic positions including Ambassador to France. He covered the U.N. extensively both at Headquarters where he attended most sessions and in the field where he was elected as President of a general session of the U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA).

To make this candidature happen realistically, a deal may be required within the Gulf countries. It has been noted, for example, that Al Jazeera, which has been enthusiastically covering revolutions in Egypt, Tunis, Yemen, and Libya, has been significantly less active on Bahrain. Only after that glaring gap in coverage was mentioned by some regional media did Al Jazeera provide some, but not as extensive coverage as of other countries. It was also noted that Qatar joined France in imposing the no-fly zone on Qaddafi, whose hatred is a unifying target for all Gulf rulers .Before that, it officially supported the entry of mostly Saudi and Emirati troops into Bahrain under the umbrella of the GCC. Should the operation in Bahrain accomplish its task with full neighborly support, then the outgoing Secretary-General of the GCC, which authorized the venture, could be adequately rewarded. Regardless of the background, Abdul Rahman Al-Atiyyahis is a very qualified candidate. And it may be about time to get a "Kheleeji" to lead "the Secretariat" of the new Arab League in a new Arab world.