Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat- in an exclusive interview with
Asharq Al-Awsat, Arab League Deputy Secretary General, Ahmad Bin-Hilli, discusses the ambiguities surrounding the postponement of the Arab summit scheduled to be held in Baghdad. He affirmed that the meeting of Arab foreign ministers has been advanced from 15 May to 8 May. The ambassador stated that Arab nations are eager to prepare well and to ensure the proper representation for this important summit that will be held at a sensitive and extremely important juncture pertaining to the developments unfolding in the Arab region. Bin-Hilli talked about the proposed alternatives to the summit and the selection of a new Arab League secretary general, emphasizing that so far, only Egypt and Qatar have nominated candidates for the position and that the candidacies will be discussed at the next Arab foreign ministers meeting.
The text of the interview is as follows:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Will the decision to postpone the next Arab summit in Baghdad have a negative reaction on the Iraqis and the future of joint Arab action, bearing in mind current developments in the Arab?
[Bin-Hilli] Iraq is definitely upset for the postponement of the Arab summit, particularly since it has completed all the required preparations for the convocation of the summit and Baghdad has been adorned to welcome this important Arab occasion. However, I believe that the brothers in Iraq understand well the current Arab circumstances and realize that the convocation of the summit is not a goal by itself, as Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari has said. Furthermore, some complications have arisen caused by statements made by Iraqi officials at the highest level pertaining to specific Arab countries, especially regarding the Arab way of dealing with the situation in the Kingdom of Bahrain. These Iraqi statements lacked sound political judgment. They were outside the Arab parameters agreed upon during the meetings of the Arab foreign ministers council. Therefore, we should slow down to deal with the repercussions of these statements and mend fences. Moreover, this summit will be held at a crucial stage in the history of the Arab region that is witnessing sweeping popular revolts that call for reform and rapid change of regimes and constitutional institutions. Naturally, this will reflect on the summit agenda. This is on top of the stagnation of the peace process in the Arab-Israeli conflict, the divisions in the Palestinian ranks, and the occupation’s ongoing settlement schemes to change the realities on the ground. All these developments require good preparation in anticipation of the international resolution that is to be made during the next session of the United Nations General Assembly and Security Council in September regarding recognition of the independent state of Palestine with Jerusalem as its capital. This is in addition to the turbulent regional situation, especially in the Arabian Gulf region. All these issues require careful and thorough study and review leading to an Arab consensus in order to emerge with the desirable results for a successful Arab summit. At this point, I also emphasize that Iraq, which is an essential pillar of the Arab system, has the full right to host the Arab summit and manage joint Arab action for a whole year, as stipulated in the Arab League charter.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you not think that all these reasons and circumstances push in the direction of convening the summit rather than postponing it?
[Bin-Hilli] We support the principle of the periodic convocation of the Arab summit; however, we should not focus on the purpose of convening it per se. It should be prepared for on the highest levels pertaining to representation, the agenda, and review of the unfolding developments. This requires consensus on the agenda that will not be a conventional one but a distinctive one. Any future summit should debate three political issues: First, the major transformations and revolts that are taking place in the region and their effect on pan-Arab security and how to deal with them. Second, the summit should discuss Arab regional security in light of the developments of the situation in Bahrain. Third, it should discuss the development of the Arab League. In other words, we should not continue to remain inside the circle of emergency and permanent crisis management and forget other major files and issues, particularly integration among the Arab states and the interests of the Arab citizen.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are there any plans of Is holding the Iraq summit in a Gulf state but chaired by Iraq as a way of improving Iraqi-Gulf relations and later holding an emergency summit in Iraq?
[Bin-Hilli] The issue of the summit and its postponement is not related to security conditions and stability in Iraq. We have agreed to convene the summit in Iraq for one day – this can be controlled on the security level – and all the preparatory meetings in the Arab League headquarters. But the Iraqi officials insist on holding the summit in Baghdad – this is what I sense from my daily contacts with them – so that Iraq would return to perform its Arab role after such a long absence.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Some believe that convening the summit in Baghdad at this particular time is important to send a clear message confirming that that the security of Iraq and of the region is an essential part of pan-Arab security, particularly in view of Gulf concerns about Iranian interventions in the region.
[Bin-Hilli] The whole Arab region is boiling and the Gulf region is an important part of it. The change sweeping Arab societies requires political wisdom, astuteness, and far-sightedness in dealing with these popular demands. Iraq is part of this change. It is rebelling for change and ending foreign presence. It clings to its Arab identity and affiliation. Iraq has indeed begun to recuperate and regain its balance. It is also becoming more fortified against external influences in its destiny and resources. Therefore, there is no fear for Iraq from regional influences. Iraq will regain its role shortly and influence the situation the situation around rather than the other way around. We are reassured that the Iraq that will regain its health and its balance will be a new Iraq. It will regain its role and stature and will influence its milieu. Iraq will not be a follower. The formation of its government took six months of consultations in order to reach a consensus on a national unity government. This shows that the people of Iraq have regained control of their affairs.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Some have proposed holding the second emergency summit in Bahrain in order to support it in confronting Iranian interventions if an agreement is reached on holding the ordinary summit in Baghdad. How possible is that?
[Bin-Hilli] All ideas are under discussion. Following consultations by the secretary general with several Arab countries and foreign ministers, the Arab League is now proposing convening a special foreign ministers meeting on 8 May to look into the summit agenda and its date of convocation, and to appoint a new secretary general to succeed Mr. Amr Musa. There are also suggestions to convene this meeting even prior to this date. In general, the Arab League supports convening the Arab summit on schedule and in its same venue, but it is the Arab countries that have the last word and decide on the date and the venue. The role of the Arab League is to coordinate and follow up.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] If the summit is not held how will a new secretary general be elected since one of the duties of the summit is to appoint the secretary general? Are there nominations for this post from countries other than Egypt and Qatar?
[Bin-Hilli] So far, the General Secretariat has received two nomination memos for the post of secretary general from Egypt and Qatar only. The Algerian foreign minister has stated that his country does not have a candidate for this post and urged consensus in selecting the new secretary general. These nominations have been circulated to the member states. In view of the postponement of the summit, the General Secretariat has asked the member states that will participate in the Arab foreign ministers meeting on 8 May to bring to the meeting an authorization from the kings and heads of state of their countries to discuss the issue of appointing a new secretary general. We hope that this appointment will be made by consensus as has been the case in the past. However, if a vote is to be taken, the winner should obtain the approval of two-thirds of the member state. This is a sound legal procedure that should be satisfactory and acceptable.
As for the issue of rotating the post of secretary general, this is no longer a request. However, after the 25 January revolution in Egypt, I read several commentaries by a number of Egyptian writers and thinkers who believe that the post of secretary general should not necessarily be confined to the country where the Arab League headquarters is located. In fact, Secretary General Amr Musa produced an unprecedented Arab equilibrium in the Arab League and its institutions after he paved the way for Arab youths from all the Arab countries to join the Arab League by holding contests limited to the countries that do not cling to their quotas in Arab League employment. For instance, we find that the heads of Arab League missions in foreign capitals come from more than 15 Arab countries. Moreover, all the aides of the secretary general and his aide are not from the state where the headquarters is located.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Does the authorization by the Arab kings and heads of state to their foreign ministers to select a candidate for the post of secretary general mean that the summit is cancelled?
[Bin-Hilli] If the summit is postponed to after 15 May, which is the date when the term of present Secretary General Amr Musa expires, there should be a solution in one of two directions: Either a new secretary general is elected or his election is postponed and a mechanism is put in place for the interim period until the summit convenes. All these proposals will be at the tabl e during the foreign ministers meetings on 8 May.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think that some of the objections against the Egyptian candidate Dr Mustafa al-Fiqqi may affect him winning the post?
[Bin-Hilli] The issue will be resolved in the positions of the Arab countries and not by the reports raised in the Egyptian media outlets that I consider some form of democratic mobility. Everyone is talking about what he wants. Egypt has put forward a candidate and the Egyptian candidacy will be discussed at the ministerial meeting in accordance with the Arab League charter and statutes.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] In light of the Arab revolts led by the youths, how can the role of the youths be activated in the Arab League in the coming period?
[Bin-Hilli] We preceded the revolt of the youths. Present Secretary General Amr Musa opened the doors of the Arab League to attract young Arab diplomatic capabilities by organizing annual competitions that takes care of this subject. Moreover, during all Arab summits, youths submit proposals directly to the Arab leaders.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are the Arab countries still eager to have a role for the Arab League that may be strengthened or do they want to get rid of the league because it has become a burden?
[Bin-Hilli] On the contrary; everyone is eager to preserve and strengthen the Arab League and to give it an advanced role but in a gradual manner in order not to cause any shakeups. We want the development to be smooth and serve Arab interests. We are now living a new Arab era that cares about reforms and the Arab League is part of this democratic atmosphere.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What are the new powers that should be given to the Arab League and its secretary general in order to activate its role?
[Bin-Hilli] The secretary general should be empowered to make decisions that do not require him to refer to the member states. For instance, the secretary general should be able to propose economic projects or standardize the uniform worn by paramedics or help Arab businessmen obtain 10-year visas in order not to impede their missions. There are many other matters that resemble what is in force in the European Union.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] In light of the major changes taking place in several Arab countries, how can we talk about the future of reform and change in the Arab League?
[Bin-Hilli] This is a long subject but it can be answered in general terms as follows: First, The Arab League should attend to the current transformations in the Arab countries. It should strongly push the reform movement forward and get closer to the concerns of the Arab citizen. The Arab League should benefit from the climate of Arab revolts to develop its goals. For instance, its members should accept to concede a suitable measure of regional sovereignty for the sake of collective action in economic, development, and social matters that serve the Arab citizen. Second, the league’s agenda should be reprioritized in order to reduce the concentration on the management of political crises and to give priority to the execution of major projects. Third, the Arab League should steer away from impromptu decisions and reliance on experts and on research and studies centers to prepare Arab plans of action and projects with a strategic character in specific domains, such as pan-Arab security, development projects, political reforms, scientific research, complementary industries, and technological advancement that require a lot of money and high-level Arab measures. Fourth, The Arab League should undertake serious studies to the project put forward by Amr Musa at the last summit in Surt regarding the league of regional Arab neighborhood from a collective Arab perspective and in light of current regional initiatives and policies.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is the Arab League’s position on the GCC initiative to solve the crisis in Yemen?
[Bin-Hilli] The Arab League supports the GCC initiative to solve the Yemeni crisis. It considers the initiative as a serious and sound endeavor in resolving Arab crises within an Arab framework. We hope that the brothers in Yemen would respond and steer away from intransigence for the sake of the homeland and its stability.