Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Asharq Al-Awsat talks with new Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat- Nabil Elaraby (76) is the newly-appointed Secretary General of the Arab League. An Egyptian national with an extensive academic background in law, holding both a Doctorate in Juridical Science and a Masters in International Law from New York University, Elaraby spent the majority of his early career as a legal advisor, working on several high profile projects including the 1978 Camp David Accords. As his reputation grew, Elaraby became increasingly involved in Egyptian foreign policy, serving as the Permanent Representative of Egypt to the United Nations in Geneva from 1987 to 1991, and New York from 1991 to 1999. He later served as a judge for the International Court of Justice between 2001 and 2006, before briefly serving as the Egyptian Foreign Minister earlier this year.

Nabil Elaraby was appointed Secretary General of the Arab league on the 15th of May 2011, succeeding Amr Musa. He assumed the role via a unanimous vote, and with the support of Egypt’s revolutionary forces, having been an outspoken critic of the Mubarak regime’s crackdown against the January 25th revolution. During the Egyptian uprising, al-Arabi had also served as an intermediately between the demonstrators and government officials, advising the protest leaders on their reform demands.

Asharq al-Awsat recently met with the new Arab League Secretary General, at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo. During the interview, Elaraby spoke about the recent events in the Middle East, with particular reference to the situations in Syria, Libya and Yemen. He also outlined his interpretation of the role of the Arab League, and indeed its Secretary General, before detailing his forthcoming plans for his term in office. The following is the full text of the interview:

By Sawsan Abo Hussein

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can you tell us the results of your visit to Damascus? Would you like to issue any clarification for your implied support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, particularly in light of the brutal crackdown being carried out by his regime against the protestors, and a number of international leaders announcing that the al-Assad regime has lost its legitimacy?

[Elaraby] I intend to talk in detail about this subject, as well as the reasons for my visit to Damascus. However first let me clarify that I only officially took office as Secretary-General of the Arab League approximately two weeks ago, and it was vital that I go on an Arab tour to visit the numerous Arab countries that are facing crises and which the Arab League may be able to contribute to resolving, most prominently the war in Libya, and the tension in Syria and Yemen, which has reached the stage of armed confrontation. Therefore it is my duty as Arab League Secretary-General to discuss the role that the Arab League will play, and the positions and viewpoints of Arab states with regards to what is happening and how to confront this, because the Arab League Secretary-General is like the Secretary-General of any international organization that is ultimately seeking to follow the policies taken at various levels of decision-making, from the level of international summits, foreign ministers, and even permanent delegates, who are implementing their governments decisions. The Arab League is a governmental organization, and let us be frank, we are facing two issues: either the Arab League does nothing – and this has happened in the past – until it is said that the Arab League does not play any role, and voices are raised calling for the Arab League to play an active and influential role, or we play an active role [now]. Therefore it was the Arab League Secretary-General’s duty to visit the sites where these events are taking place, and therefore my mission in Syria was to send a message to the Syrian leadership – including many of the figures responsible for Syria’s security and stability – that they should concentrate on reform. I am not in a position to reveal the precise details of what took place during my meeting with the Syrian leadership, but let me say that the dialogue revolved around the Egyptian experience, meaning that the message was based on what happened in Egypt.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Did you give the same message to everybody in the Syrian leadership, namely Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, his vice president, and the Syrian Foreign Minister?

[Elaraby] Before I travelled to Damascus I asked to meet with Syrian Foreign Minister [Walid Muallem], but instead I met with President al-Assad. I saw this meeting as an opportunity to give the Syrian leader my message in person; I met with President al-Assad for a long period of time, and then later I met with Syrian Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa and I gave him the same message, although in greater detail. This [message] was about the need to identify clear deadlines with regards to making specific achievements toward reform, and later I [also] met with Syrian Foreign Minister [Walid Muallem] and I spoke with him on the same issue.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Why did you criticize the Syrian opposition during your visit?

[Elaraby] Following my meeting with President Bashar al-Assad, I found myself facing a number of journalists and media outlets, and I told them that I had given President al-Assad a message regarding the importance and necessity of reform, and that the Syrian president had promised me that he would carry out the necessary reforms before the end of the year. Then one of the journalists asked me a question, namely “what is your response to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent statement that the Syrian President has lost his legitimacy?” I answered by saying “no foreign country has the right to say that the president of any country has lost his legitimacy, this is for the people decide, not a foreign country.” Therefore my statement was against foreign intervention, which is something that is rejected by the Arab League Charter, however what is happening now is that foreign intervention may be a demand of the people, as was the case in Libya. Anyway, that was the basis of my statement from Damascus.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Media outlets also quoted you, commenting on US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s statement, as saying that this statement overstepped the bounds of the situation in Syria. Is this true?

[Elaraby] Any country in the world decides the legitimacy of its [own] president; therefore there is no value in such talk because a leader’s legitimacy is derived from the people, not from a decision issued by this country or that. This position is based on the Arab League Charter and the UN Charter, namely the rejection of foreign intervention and the respect of state sovereignty.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] However your statements have been interpreted as support for President Bashar al-Assad’s legitimacy, and this is despite the brutal suppression of his own people. Do you stick by your statement?

[Elaraby] It is not my right to support the legitimacy of President al-Assad or any other world leader, legitimacy is conferred by the Syrian people, who voted for him and elected him president. As for the Arab League Secretary-General, he does not discuss the internal affairs of Arab states.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] However, as Arab League Secretary-General, isn’t it your right to search for a solution to the Syrian crisis in order to guarantee Syrian stability?

[Elaraby] My role is to push for the needed reform in Syria, and investigate whether there is a role for the Arab League to play in this regard, by consulting with the Syrian leadership. I am fully aware of the role of the Arab League Secretary-General, and I have experience in two issues that I consider to be my specialty: the limits of the role of the Arab League Secretary-General, and the limits of the role of the UN Secretary-General. I previously wrote my doctoral thesis on the legal frameworks of the role of the UN Secretary-General in resolving disputes. I also know the extent of the usefulness of calm communication that allows the decision-makers to make their decision in a manner that leads to positive results, by which I mean that the Arab League Secretary-General must pay attention to many things that are not known to the media.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think that human rights issues have become a back-door for foreign intervention?

[Elaraby] Human right issues, since Apartheid in South Africa, have become a public concern. I mean that large-scale human rights violations cannot be deemed to be part of a state’s internal affairs, however what is important is that there is legitimate intervention by a relevant body, and according to general internationally accepted understandings regarding human rights.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] The Arab League charter explicitly rejects foreign intervention in internal affairs; however we have heard a number of protests outside of the Arab League headquarters calling for foreign intervention. How can we reconcile these two stances?

[Elaraby] If we accepted foreign intervention in the internal affairs of Arab League member-states, this would result in chaos. Would foreign intervention in Egyptian affairs be acceptable based on calls from Tahrir Square, for example? Of course not! The issue must have specific criteria, for example, in Libya the situation reached a stage of war. Whilst in South Africa, this was treated by imposing economic sanctions on the government, and there was no military intervention in that case because the criteria needed for military intervention had not been fulfilled.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] This brings us to Libya. In your opinion, what is required to overcome the crisis in Libya? Do you believe that the NATO-led coalition’s operations may result in a repeat of the Iraqi scenario?

[Elaraby] I hope that we do not see a repeat of the Iraqi scenario in Libya, and I intend to submit alternative proposals for a solution during the forthcoming Arab League Foreign Ministers meeting which is scheduled to be held in September, and I have already begun preparing for this.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Many view western intervention as being, usually, quick and effective, particularly in the countries that have oil resources. This is something that we have seen with regards to the situation in Libya, whilst we have not seen any similar intervention in Syria and Yemen. What is your opinion?

[Elaraby] I agree with this link, and I think that it is correct. Every country in the world, including western countries, naturally look out for their own interests, and therefore it is up to us as Arab states to cooperate and work together to confront what is happening, and establish institutes that protect all Arab states, economically, socially, scientifically, and culturally. We must do this, and apply and implement the provisions of the Arab League charter, from joint-Arab cooperation utilizing modern and scientific means to protect the law and the legitimate interest of [Arab] peoples.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you believe there is an opportunity for the Arab League Secretary-General to play a leading role in resolving these extremely complex and complicated regional crises, which is something that many consider an impossible task?

[Elaraby] I cannot say that this is possible or impossible, but I will say that this is a difficult task and we must investigate all options.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think the Yemeni crisis will be resolved in the near future? You recently met with Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz; can you tell us if there are any new developments with regards to this issue? Has Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh agreed to sign the Gulf Initiative and step down from power?

[Elaraby] Firstly the consultations surrounding the Gulf Initiative have concluded and amendments have been made on more than one occasion, the GCC Secretary-General [Abdul-Latif Bin Rashid al-Zayani] has exerted sustained effort in this regard, and I imagine that the Gulf Initiative is ready to be signed. In Saudi Arabia, I received confirmation that they are waiting for the Gulf Initiative to be signed, and are committed to this. As for the role of the Arab League, this will begin following the signing of the Gulf Initiative, and only if we are requested [to play a role], but at the current time we are not required to play a role with regards to the efforts being exerted by the GCC.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What role do you think the Arab League can play in Yemen following the signing of the Gulf Initiative?

[Elaraby] [We can play a role in providing] assistance in implementing [the provision of the Gulf Initiative], in addition to promoting some kind of trust between the different parties and contributing and supporting the establishment of institutes that will bear the burden during the transitional phase.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] When do you intend to visit Yemen?

[Elaraby] I intend to visit all Arab states, but I have yet to organize this tour of Arab countries. I have been following a program that was launched since I began work as Arab League Secretary-General on 3 July, and before the end of the year I will have visited all Arab states. It would be too difficult to do this in a shorter period of time, particularly due to the summer holidays and the holy month of Ramadan [beginning in August]. Whilst in September and October, I will be busy participating in the UN General Assembly.

However prior to all this, next week, I intend to visit France, and then I will be visiting Rome to meet with the Italian Foreign Minister, and then meeting with German Foreign Minister, and I also intend to stop off at London to meet the British Foreign Secretary. All of these meetings will focus on a single issue, namely the Palestinian cause.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Proposed solutions for the Palestinian crisis have been put forward over the past 6 decades without success, what’s changed now?

[Elaraby] The answer is very simple; the Arab states rejected this in the past.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] However such proposals have already been rejected by the Israelis in the past. What makes you think this will succeed today?

[Elaraby] Let us begin at the end, namely all the documents and laws in the world support the establishment of a Palestinian state. Israel has reached its current level of power and indeed arrogance and refuses all the proposals it receives in this regard, and no country in the world is capable of pressuring Israel with the exception of the US, however we can see that the current position being taken by Washington is not one of putting pressure on Israel. Therefore what is required today is to search for something that returns the balance to this deadlocked situation and allows us to move forward with regards to the Palestinian cause.

The first thing that we must do is remove everything that we know with regards to the themes and issues of the “peace process” which, in my view, has not resulted in anything and has become one of the things that Israel uses to buy time and postpone reaching a settlement. This is an important strategic objective for Israel, for the more time passes the more land Israel obtains, and so we must break this barrier that Israel has put in place and named the “peace process” which will never achieve peace.

In light of all this, the answer today is to turn to the international community, and this is not the first time that such a decision has been made. An example of this is that when a problem arose in the 1940s between the Palestinians and the Jewish immigrants, Britain took this to the UN General Assembly on 2 April 1947, which voted on a solution regarding the future of Palestine. Therefore taking this issue before the UN is not setting a precedent, but rather a return to the original solution. When we look at each stage of the [Palestinian – Israeli] conflict we can see that there were solutions on the table, and the lesson that we have learned from all of this is that it is the responsibility of the international community to solve this issue, and if it wants to solve this conflict it must not view this as if it were a disagreement between a husband and wife, for this is not true…and it prevents [foreign] intervention. The international community is legally, constitutionally, and politically responsible for resolving this conflict.

In addition to this, all people of the world enjoy the right of self-determination except for the Palestinian people, they are the only people who are not granted this right, and therefore what is required is for this issue to be brought before the UN, for the UN General Assembly is capable of issuing a decision on the importance of all countries officially recognizing Palestine, and for Palestine to be accepted as a UN non-member observer state such as the Vatican and Switzerland [prior to 2002], and like East Germany and West Germany prior to unification. Following this, we do not rule out taking the issue to the UN Security Council, but when this happens depends upon the decision of the Arab Group, and the position of Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Have you been in contact with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, or Hamas leader Khaled Mishal, to coordinate and discuss the Palestinian reconciliation?

[Elaraby] When I was in the [Egyptian] Foreign Ministry, I had contact in this regard.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] The forthcoming Arab Summit has been postponed on more than one occasion due to the events of the “Arab Spring”; will this summit definitely be taking place next March?

[Elaraby] I will do everything in my power to ensure that it takes place on schedule, and the forthcoming Arab League Foreign Ministers meeting in September will decide when precisely this Arab summit in Iraq will be held.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] The Arab world’s relationship with neighboring countries, particularly Iran, is marred by a tug of war. In your opinion, who is disrupting the progress of bilateral relations between the Arabs and Iran?

[Elaraby] This is a very sensitive issue, because Iran claims that the Arab states are responsible for the lack of progress in [bilateral] relations, whilst some Arab states accuse Iran of being primarily responsible for this by interfering in the Arab world and supporting sectarianism. Therefore everybody is calling for Iran not to interfere [in the Arab world], and to commit itself to the principles of good neighborly relations.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] In your own personal opinion, where should dialogue with Iran begin from?

[Elaraby] This is not part of the mission of the Arab League. We should first return to bilateral relations between Arab states and Iran, and the Arab League’s doors are open.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] In the context of discussing bilateral relations between Iran and Egypt, can you tell us whether the former Egyptian regime sought to disrupt this?

[Elaraby] Of course, for the former Egyptian regime placed Iran on its enemies list, however those now coming to power in Egypt have confirmed that Iran is not considered an enemy state [by Egypt].

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Was the former Egyptian regime hostile to Iran in order to preserve its good relations with the US and Israel?

[Elaraby] I do not have sufficient information [to answer this question] as I do not have any ties with the former regime.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Finally, Mr. Secretary-General, how do you intend to develop the Arab League?

[Elaraby] Development, restructuring, and improving performance for the purposes of improving joint-Arab operations…I will put forward all of this at the forthcoming Arab League Foreign Ministers meeting.