Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat—Even before becoming the Arab League’s secretary-general in July 2011, Nabil Elaraby had a distinguished political and legal career. After serving as an adviser to the Egyptian delegation at Camp David—also later advising on a number of other agreements between Egypt and Israel—he succeeded Amr Moussa as Egypt’s permanent representative at the United Nations in 1991. In July 2011, he succeeded Moussa once again when he was named as the Arab League’s secretary-general, following a brief stint as Egypt’s foreign minister in former premier Essam Sharaf’s short-lived cabinet of March–June 2011.
On Sunday, the foreign ministers of the Arab League’s member states met at the organization’s headquarters in Cairo to discuss the current security threats facing the region. The foreign ministers officially endorsed recommendations made by a team of Arab counter-terrorism experts during the ministers’ previous meeting, and vowed to implement a number of agreements to collectively deal with the threat of terrorism in the region.
Asharq Al-Awsat spoke with Nabil Elaraby ahead of this crucial meeting to discuss the regional and international threat posed by terrorist groups, the latest steps to resolve the Israeli–Palestinian issue, and reform of the Arab League itself.
Asharq Al-Awsat: What recommendations will you make at the Arab foreign ministers’ meeting to confront the current challenges?
Nabil Elaraby: The ministerial meeting—held on Sunday—must . . . make a crucial decision to confront the unprecedented challenges facing the Arab world today. They are not just conflicts within states, but phenomena we have not seen before—extremist groups that carry out terrorist attacks and contravene all principles of human behavior, announcing the creation of a new state on the territories of two Arab states, Iraq and Syria.
This is not acceptable at all, and the foreign ministers’ meeting must rise to this challenge and make decisions that prove equal to this dangerous challenge. The required response here is a political, security, ideological and cultural confrontation, because the danger is massive, and therefore it is unreasonable not to have a clear reaction from the Arab world, and we are not expecting other parties to intervene.
Q: The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz, has warned about the phenomenon of terrorism and the practices of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and he has called on religious scholars and intellectuals to confront this dangerous challenge. How has the Arab League responded to this warning?
We agree with the warning of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques about the danger of the situation, and therefore I reiterate the importance of focusing on this issue at the ministerial meeting and making a decision that is supported by all governments to confront this phenomenon. Religious discourse must be revised, as well as education and the economic situation, because most of those who join these groups are unemployed youth who have no hope for the future.
Q: You previously talked about a consultative meeting of Arab foreign ministers to discuss the phenomenon of terrorism, ISIS and other groups. What did that lead to?
Consultations among the foreign ministers go on all the time, even before the official meeting.
Q: Among the issues on the agenda is the Palestinian issue. What is to be discussed?
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will speak at the meeting and will specify what he wants, and we will discuss what he asks for. I don’t want to talk on his behalf, but what I want to stress is that he is open to the importance of restarting genuine negotiations, otherwise the issue will [remain one] of merely managing the conflict. Genuine negotiations stipulate an agreement on the reference points stated by UN resolutions, which are “the 1967 borders, East Jerusalem, and security for both sides,” which means it must be a mutual effort. And if we agree on these three points, we can reach a resolution in a week, not in months.
Q: After your discussions with US Secretary of State John Kerry, did you feel that he understood the dangers posed by groups such as ISIS, and do you agree with what Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi recently said, that the resolution of the Palestinian issue is part of the solution of the issue of terrorism?
Yes, that is absolutely correct, and I am happy that President Sisi said this. I think a large part of the frustration among the youth in the Arab and Islamic worlds stems from the lack of a solution to the Palestinian issue, and the way Israel has behaved in violating all international laws and principles with impunity. This is one of the reasons for the emergence of militias and groups that lean towards violence and terrorism. As for Secretary Kerry, he is in constant contact, and we will see what can be done.
Q: What are you planning to do at the UN General Assembly meetings in relation to Palestine and dealing with terrorism?
The Palestinian issue is linked to the UN Security Council taking a decision to implement . . . the resolution made by the Arab foreign ministers in November 2012, which called for an end to the conflict instead of just managing the conflict, which could go on for 100 years without resolution.
On this basis, we asked Secretary of State Kerry to start negotiations that would lead to an end to the conflict and achieve comprehensive peace; but the issue faltered due to Israeli intransigence. Now, we have great hope that negotiations will restart in the right way. As for other resolutions linked to cooperation with international organizations, these have been on the table for a while and continue to be.
Q: What about the visit of the Arab ministerial delegation to Gaza?
The technical delegation went to Gaza and delivered 400 tons of humanitarian aid, but it could not continue its journey due to the lack of security, so it returned after handing over the aid to the Palestinian Red Crescent. As for the visit we are planning, we are still in discussions with President Abbas to decide a suitable time.
Q: You recently met the foreign minister of Libya. What is being done to assist Libya’s return to stability?
A resolution will be announced which will take into consideration the important decisions made at the recent meeting of Libya’s neighboring states in Egypt, and therefore, what will happen in our meeting will be more comprehensive, asking what all Arab countries could do for Libya.
Q: Did the Libyan foreign minister make any specific suggestions to stop the deterioration of security in the country?
We talked about the issue and he focused on the importance of respecting international legitimacy in the shape of the country’s parliament, which represents the great majority of the Libyan people, adding that any attempts to revive the [General] National Congress, which expired last February, would be considered damaging to Libya’s legitimacy.
Q: Despite this move to help Libya, the situation remains dangerous and threatens neighboring states. What steps are needed now to assist the Libyan government?
I hope that the general trend will be to issue a resolution that stresses that Arab states will confront these dangerous phenomena that threaten the Arab world as a whole, meaning that events in Iraq and Syria are part of this, and events in Libya are another part. Therefore, we must ensure there is political will at the level of Arab states to take the required steps to confront the terrorist attacks.
Q: Did the secretary-general of the Syrian National Coalition, Nasr Al-Hariri, make any proposals?
The secretary-general of the Syrian National Coalition discussed the current situation and spoke about the importance of helping the Coalition. He explained the situation on the ground, which is constantly changing, and explained what took place in the Quneitra region recently [ongoing fighting there between Syrian government forces and rebels].
Q: With regards to the development of the Arab League, will any recommendations be made soon?
Of course. There are steps which will be announced soon, and we now have a special mechanism for humanitarian aid. The issue of activating the Peace and Security Council will also be [addressed], as well as the Arab Human Rights Court. These issues have been agreed and concluded. As for the issue of amending the Arab League Charter, it has been postponed for three months.
Q: There is a debate between those who want radical change to the charter and those who just want to amend it. What is your opinion? What do you think of the proposal of rotating the post of secretary-general?
I welcome it. I talked about radical development about three years ago, which includes taking the Arab League from the stage of first-generation organizations which worked according to pre-Second World War understandings under the League of Nations, which was founded in 1919, to the current stage and the second and third generations, similar to the European Union and the African Union. This is the real development we [need to] achieve.
I also see development as an ongoing process that will not be achieved in one day. We agreed to develop the charter and asked for a three-month period to reach an agreement on some priorities [for development]. I also talked about the Peace and Security Council, the humanitarian aid mechanism, and the human rights court.
Q: Is the Arab League counting on the international community to take the lead in addressing current challenges?
My wish is for an early resolution to be issued, announcing a comprehensive strategy to confront the challenges, especially terrorism.
Q: It is easy to issue a resolution, but the problem is its implementation . . .
That question should be addressed to the states, because they do the implementation. Constantly blaming organizations is not fair because all regional and international organizations, including the UN and Arab League, are mere echoes of what is agreed by the parties and their seriousness about implementing what had been agreed.
Q: What does the Arab League offer the situation in Iraq?
There is an agreement between the president of the Arab League summit, Kuwait, the current ministerial president, Mauritania, and the Arab League Secretary-General that as soon as a government is formed, [the Arab League will] visit Iraq to reach an understanding with the new government and to put all the Arab League’s resources at its disposal.
This is an abridged version of an interview originally conducted in Arabic.