Libya: Why Arab League isn’t taken seriously

Having initially backed the idea of a no-fly zone over Libya, the Arab League’s apparent change of heart should surprise no one.

John R Bradley

Having initially backed the idea of a no-fly zone over Libya, the Arab League’s apparent change of heart should surprise no one.

The organisation’s 22 member states (although Libya has been suspended since last month) have consistently dithered over internal politics since the group was established more than 60 years ago.

In fact, the league’s twice-yearly meetings now achieve so little that they have become a joke among ordinary Arabs.

It was created with loftier aims. Established in 1945 – and encouraged by Britain – the league was supposed to give Arab states a sense of unity. But in reality, the organisation has been crippled by internal divisions from day one.

During the Cold War, pro-Western countries such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Morocco made unhappy bedfellows with revolutionary, anti-Western regimes such as Egypt, Libya and Syria.

Egypt, the most populous Arab country, was expelled for a decade after it made peace with Israel in 1979, whereupon the league’s headquarters shifted from Cairo to Tunis.

They only moved back again following Egypt’s reintegration to the league a decade later.

America’s wars in the region – the 1991 Gulf War with Iraq and the subsequent invasion of the country in 2003 – further deepened divisions among member states, scuppering all attempts at forging a co-ordinated Arab response to them.

While some league members – including Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain – offered the U.S. facilities for the invasion, Syria voiced its strong disapproval.

Nothing better demonstrates the league’s ineffectiveness, though, than the fact that its most memorable episodes have involved not solid policy decisions but spontaneous outbursts by the more unpredictable leaders of its members states.

In 2002, a live television broadcast was cut after Colonel Gaddafi launched a tirade against Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, accusing him of being a Western stooge.

The normally reticent Saudi king shot back that everyone in the Arab world knew that it was the CIA who had brought Gaddafi himself to power, finally spitting out: ‘Your grave awaits you.’

Moving from the sublime to the ridiculous, following Venezuela’s decision to expel Israeli diplomats during the 2008-2009 Gaza War, a prominent Kuwaiti member of parliament suggested that the league’s headquarters be moved to Caracas.

And following a bitter tit-for-tat spat between Egypt and Algeria after a 2010 World Cup football play-off, the Arab League asked Gaddafi to step in and mediate between the two countries following violent attacks on fans from each side.

In recent weeks, the Arab League’s initial support for military action against Libya appeared to be a rare display of solidarity.

A vote on the issue last week was supported by every single member state bar Algeria and Syria.

But the declaration on Sunday by the league’s secretary-general, Amr Moussa, showed that yet again they’re splintering. The league had wanted the protection of civilians, Moussa said sternly, not the bombardment of civilians.

This perhaps has more to do with his personal agenda, however, because he has recently announced that he will be running for the presidency in his native Egypt.

On the campaign trail at home, Moussa has faced repeated criticism from ordinary Egyptians about the Arab League’s failure to act in support of behalf of Arab causes.

But then political posturing such as Moussa’s is nothing new to the Arab League.

John R Bradley is the author of Saudi Arabia Exposed and Inside Egypt

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Update: Mr. Moussa changed his mind again

He said the 22-member organisation remains committed to UN-mandated efforts to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya and called upon coalition members to give top priority to protecting civilians.

“We respect the UN Security Council resolution and do not seek to contradict this resolution, especially since it stated that there will be no invasion or occupation of Libyan lands,” he said at a press conference with UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon.