Arab League’s Hossam Zaki says much depends on ‘gathering of Arab will’
The Arab world is facing unprecedented challenges — from the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) to conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen — and the Arab League has done what it can, even as it has not been able to take a leading role in addressing these crises, the organisation’s assistant secretary-general Hossam Zaki said.
Speaking to The Arab Weekly at the headquarters of the 22-member Arab League in Cairo, the veteran Egyptian diplomat said Arabs must be realistic and acknowledge that the solution to regional crises may lie beyond the Middle East but the Arab League must, nevertheless, play a stronger role.
“It’s complicated because we are trying to do some work in this area whereas we know that we are not the only players in the game,” Zaki said. “On the contrary, you can say the Arab League is kind of a latecomer to many of these crises. We have not had an uninterrupted role in any of those conflicts since the beginning.”
“In the Syrian situation, in the Libyan situation, in the Yemeni situation — just to pick those three examples — we have not been consistent in dealing with them. At the beginning of any specific crisis, we deal with it, then somehow the whole file gets transferred to the international peace and security organs, meaning the UN Security Council,” he said.
“So, I feel that the Arab League has abdicated its role or it has been sidelined, whichever you would like to choose.”
The Syrian conflict has been going on for nearly six years with no end in sight. The situation in Libya became more complicated after the 2011 “Arab spring” revolts, with competing governments and a dangerous ISIS presence.
As for international organs, whether the Arab League or the United Nations, they have shown themselves to be incapable of resolving the various crises that have beset the Middle East since the “Arab spring”.
“Listen, there is a sort of fatigue in the Arab general public opinion and also most certainly among the government vis-à-vis the continuation of these crises… [but] what I can tell you is that the Arab League, under the leadership of Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit, will definitely do its best to be there and to bring as much Arab input as possible into the solution of those crises based upon our resolutions,” Zaki said.
“We are going to try and do that but it is an uphill battle. It’s not an easy thing.”
Aboul Gheit, a former Egyptian Foreign minister, was elected Arab League secretary-general last March, although the election of a 74-year-old Mubarak-era official was not welcomed by all members, with some questioning his age and previous comments.
Despite this, Aboul Gheit has taken the initiative to increase coordination and cooperation between the Arab League and the United Nations with the aim of involving the Arab League more in resolving regional challenges.
“As we speak, we have been working to push for complete coordination with complete transparency between the Arab League and UN on all these issues,” Zaki said. “We are receiving the UN envoys here in the Arab League to speak with them about their efforts and about how they are working in order to reach a solution to these crises.”
“The next step, as we see it, is to be part of the solution, not only for the Arab League to be briefed but for the Arab League to be part of the solution. For that, we need much more than just the goodwill of the secretary-general. We also need the active engagement and support of our member states, and I think we have that. So it is a matter of time but I think we are heading in the right direction.”
Critics of the Arab League point to a clear shortage of “goodwill” between the Arab League and its members, with the Arab League preoccupied with a number of major internal issues, particularly questions over the lack of payment by several members to the organisation’s budget. There have also been attempts to modernise and reform the Arab League, something observers say is desperately needed.
When asked to pick a “dream” professional objective that he wished could be fulfilled, Zaki considered the internal workings of the Arab League.
“There are a number of administrative and financial issues in the Arab League that have been lagging behind for a number of years,” he said.” I think we can resolve them. I have a good vibe about that, particularly as this issue has soured the relationship between the member states and the Arab League secretariat for a number of years. I think if we can resolve that, we will be able to go back to the initial goodwill relationship between the member states and the secretariat and that is what we need.”
With the next Arab League summit set for in Amman in March, Zaki said he was “optimistic” that the Arab League would play a greater role in resolving Middle East crises but only after resolving its own.
“Yes, I think we have a good chance but that is, of course, conditioned upon many things, whether we will be able to put all [Arab] hands together,” he said. “Whether we will be able to have a gathering of Arab will.”