The Arab League, officially called the League of Arab States, is a notoriously fractious regional organization of 22 Arab states based in Cairo. It was founded on March 22, 1945, with the aim of strengthening the relationships between member states through political, cultural and economic cooperation.
Through institutions such as the Arab League Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization and the Economic and Social Council of the Arab League’s Council of Arab Economic Unity, the Arab League facilitates economic, cultural, scientific and social programs designed to promote the interests of the Arab world. But on contentious political issues, their cooperation has been more strained.
The league’s members have argued about many issues through the years, with the Israeli-Palestine conflict perhaps the most divisive. Egypt’s own membership in the Arab League was suspended in 1979 after it signed a peace treaty with Israel, and the league’s headquarters were moved from Cairo to Tunis. In 1987, Arab leaders decided to renew diplomatic ties with Egypt, and the headquarters returned to Cairo.
In 2002, the members of the league did come together to support a peace plan for Israel and the Palestinians first floated by Saudi Arabia. It calls for Israeli withdrawal from all lands occupied after the 1967 war and a “just settlement’’ of the question of Palestinian refugees, the so-called right of return. In return, the Arab countries promised to recognize Israel and open normal relations. The plan remains the formal bargaining position of the league’s members, even as they have disagreed over other aspects of the conflict.
The League and Syria
For decades, the league was a byword for irrelevance, reflecting the ossified politics of most of its members. It endorsed an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan in 2002, too late to have an impact. As the Arab Spring unrest swept through the region in 2011, the league stayed on the sidelines.
But in early November 2011, the Syrian government accepted a plan brokered by the league to halt violence and convene talks with the opposition. Days later, Syria launched a bloody assault to retake Homs, the country’s third-largest city. By late November, the Arab League had suspended Syria and imposed economic sanctions meant to sever most trade and investment between Syria and the Arab world.
On Dec. 19, Syria again agreed to allow Arab observers into the country, a day after the league threatened to take the initiative to the United Nations Security Council. The observers arrived on December 27, but their presence did nothing to slow the violence, and the mission was criticized as too small, too inexperienced and too dependent on the government to do any good.
On Jan. 22, the Arab League unexpectedly floated a proposal under which President Bashar al Assad would relinquish power to a deputy and start negotiations with opponents within two weeks. It was promptly rejected by Syria.
The League pushed hard for a resolution from the United Nations Security Council that would call on Mr. Assad to step aside, but even a watered-down version calling for a ceasefire and talks was blocked by Russia and China.
In mid-February, the League asked the United Nations Security Council to send a peacekeeping mission to Syria and called on Arab nations to sever diplomatic relations with Damascus in an effort to pressure the government to end the violence there. Morocco, however, wanted to go further and did not want to limit its actions only to diplomacy but towards humanitarian aid to rescue the Syrian refugees at the Jordanian-Syrian borders. On August 5, HM the King ordered an immdeiate humanitarian assistance to express to the Jordanians Morocco’s full solidarity with Jordan which is facing, for months now, a huge flow of Syrian refugees fleeing growing violence in their country. In fact, several planes flew to Amman full of food, water, tents, medical suplies… and notably a large medical team composed of military specialist doctors to present medical assistance to the Syrian refugees. Through this gesture, King Mohammed wanted to set an example to other Arab leaders in the region and to remind them of the scope and seriousness of the humanitarian crisis in Syria since the outbreak of hostilities, leaving 20,000 dead and forcing hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians, including women and children, to leave their houses and take refuge, with no resources, in neigbouring countries, including Jordan. Given the escalation of violence, the number of these refugees is growing steadily and their moral and material situation is extremely alarming.
An Opportunity for Reform
The Arab League continues to struggle with disunity and dysfunction, and critics question whether the organization has any relevance in its current form. Though it achieved notable consensus over the Saudi-sponsored Arab Peace Initiative in 2002, the League failed to coordinate its policy over both the 1990-1991 Gulf War and the 2003 Iraq War .
Interviews conducted by al-Jazeera in 2011 illustrate the post Arab Spring generation absolute frustration with the organization. “If we are to measure competence in terms of results and achievements,” said a twenty-four-year old Syrian, “then the Arab League is not competent simply because they have not achieved anything.” Even the League’s newly appointed Secretary General , Nabil al-Araby, joined the chorus of criticism in September 2011, describing the organization as “impotent.”
The Arab revolts throughout the Middle East and North Africa in 2011 and 2012 have offered the League a new opportunity to pursue much-needed reform. Some critics see the appointment of al-Araby as a step toward this end. Many consider him to be in tune with Arab public opinion, he is respected among Arab activists, protestors, and members of the opposition. He’s not someone who is a stooge of the regime by any stretch of the imagination. All of this suggests that the Arab League is changing.
In November 2011, the Arab League suspended Syrian membership and brokered an ill-fated peace agreement with the Assad regime, calling for an end to violence against protestors and the opening of negotiations with opposition groups. The League also sent a team of observers to Syria in late December to monitor the plan’s implementation.
In January 2012, the Arab League officially called for Assad to step down and requested a resolution from the UN Security Council to support this proposal. Meanwhile, some Gulf Arab nations, led by Saudi Arabia, pulled their monitors from the League’s observer mission over its failure to stem violence in Syria.
Mideast expert Shadi Mokhtarim cites the human rights rhetoric that Arab League members adopted in response to the crackdowns as evidence of change. “Although political calculations rendered the Assad regime more difficult to desert than Qaddafi’s,” she writes, “the Arab League, the GCC, Turkey, Kuwait, Jordan, the PLO and, much more astoundingly, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have all moved to issue public rebukes of Syria’s brutal crackdown on its citizens.” Still others say the Arab League continues to apply a double standard in its reaction to the unrest (i.e., condemning Qaddafi’s actions, but failing to intervene in Egypt, Tunisia, and now Syria.)
The Arab League is likely to improve little on its record of collective action until members agree to sacrifice some sovereignty (i.e., installing an enforcement mechanism). And until democracy is the mainstay of the Arab world, the League will continue to struggle with issues of legitimacy. In forecasting progress on these issues at the League, the short-term prospects are limited, and in the medium term it depends on factors outside of League’s control, in the individual Arab states who have to introduce real democracy and rule of law. The Arab League should meet the expectations of the new post Arab Spring generation. Enough of rhetoric and more action. In short, the Arab League should become a voice for the public.