The efficacy of the Arab League has been a topic for debate since its founding in 1945. On the subject of Palestine, on which it has described itself as a key player, it has never been able to take clear initiative. The most significant decision ever rendered by the Arab League was to throw Egypt out of the organization following its signing of the Camp David Accords with Israel in 1979.
The Arab League seemed caught unprepared in the back-to-back overturning of the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes at the start of this year, but on the topic of Libya, it made what might be called an historic decision.
The organization showed a stern face to Muammar Gaddafi, who had not a single friend amongst the 22 member countries of the Arab League, signing off on a decision which surprised the whole world on March 12. The decision affirmed a call to the UN to intervene in Libya and shelved the membership of the Gaddafi regime, instead moving to officially recognize the Libyan opposition.
During this turbulent period, one member country -- Sudan -- was literally split into two, while Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa, who had been no stranger to the media during his two terms at the helm of the organization, was replaced by retired Egyptian diplomat and former Foreign Minister Nabil al-Arabi. At the same time, the traditional March leader’s summit held by the organization was postponed until next year.
With the events in Yemen and Syria unfolding at the same time as the occurrences in Libya, the Arab League tended to lean more towards Syria, leaving the business in Yemen to Saudi Arabia. At the start of November, the organization signed off on a decision that elicited particularly strong, negative reactions from the Syrian opposition, declaring that they had come to an agreement with the Assad regime on the subject of a cease-fire and that they would give the Syrian regime 15 days to comply.
However, when the Assad regime -- which constantly plays for time -- only stepped up the massacre, the Arab League signed off on a second historic decision on Nov. 12, shelving Syria’s membership.
Despite frequent assertions by the Arab League’s secretary-general that the organization is opposed to any sort of foreign intervention in Syria similar to what happened in Libya, he did offer up signals during his visit to Libya on Sunday that the organization may in fact give the green light to such an act.
In his statement to the press, Arabi called for international protection efforts for the civilians of Syria. He said, “Going to the United Nations Security Council for this is not wrong at all since it is the only organization which can implement sanctions.”
Middle East expert and renowned Canadian journalist Gwynne Dyer wrote in an online column that the Arab League, under the control of dictatorial regimes whose lies and crimes have not been fully examined, has come through the past 66 years to this era as a weak organization. However, Dyer now asserts that in fact the Arab League has changed its balance with a sudden awakening this year. Dyer also points out that people must not overlook the role played by Qatar during this period.
Playing a leading role in the decision-making regarding Libya by the Arab League, Qatar sent war planes to join in the UN effort and gave hundreds of millions of dollars to the Libyan opposition. In the same manner, Qatar has also played a leading role in the Syrian matter, with the foundation of the decisions made about the Assad regime being laid by Qatar.
The emergence of Qatar prompts the question of how the future leadership of the league will be composed. One Jordanian academic, Osama Al Sharif, wrote in a recent column that the Arab League, which for so many years made no decisions, will from here on be a significant stage for the struggle between democratic and autocratic nations, and that as the number of democratic countries grows in the region, the organization will become simultaneously more dynamic and democratically led.
There are, however, some questions about whether or not the Arab League will be able to take similarly courageous steps in the coming period. It is not known whether the Arab League will make a similar decision regarding Yemen, where bloody events are still unfolding. Part of the ambiguity on this front stems from a lack of knowledge regarding Yemeni leader Ali Abdullah Salih’s standing in the eyes of the organization’s most powerful member, Saudi Arabia. Though Saudi Arabia enjoys the certain support of at least 10 other member countries, it is not clear what decision the organization will make on Yemen.
The question everyone is asking these days is will the Arab League be able to make decisions of the same caliber it made on the Libyan and Syrian fronts as the Arab Spring continues to unfold? What will it do, for example, on the Bahraini front?