Nabil al-Arabi - Reuters - 22022012
Nabil al-Arabi. 'We will turn over a new leaf with all countries, including Iran.' Photo by Reuters
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These are tough times for Arab League Secretary General Nabil al-Arabi. Not only is the veteran diplomat, who after the revolution briefly served as Egypt’s foreign minister, busy with the Syria file. He also wants to be Egypt’s next president.

After Egypt’s parliamentary elections, which gave the Muslim Brotherhood 47 percent of the seats, the campaign began for June’s presidential elections. The Muslim Brotherhood decided two months ago that it would not run its own candidate − a decision that split the movement when one of its former leaders, Abdel Munim Abu al-Futuh, threw his hat in the ring. Now it’s trying to agree on a candidate.

According to reports from Egypt and statements by the movement’s leaders, the Brotherhood is likely to support Arabi, 77. The decision on this was probably taken in consultation with the supreme military council, which sees him as someone it can do business with, someone who will ensure the army’s independence after the elections.

Also running is former Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa, who is considered to have the support of the secular protest movement. Also running are two other candidates who represent the relatively moderate religious stream, though they’re not part of the Muslim Brotherhood. The head of the Salafist Al-Nour Party has also announced his intention to run for president.

The Syrian question

If the Muslim Brotherhood decides to stick with Arabi, it’s doubtful anyone can compete with him. But he has a ways to go to be considered “the president of all the Egyptians” because his record on the Syrian issue is rousing harsh criticism from the secular movements and human rights activists. They’re slamming his conciliatory attitude toward President Bashar Assad.

At the start of the demonstrations against the Syrian regime, Arabi, as Arab League secretary general, was dismissive toward the rebels and accepted Assad’s position that they were armed gangs seeking to undermine the regime. He dragged his feet for months before initiating any action by the league, which also at first supported dialogue between the rebels and the regime.

Only after heavy pressure from the Gulf states did Arabi finally agree to send Arab observers under the command of Sudanese General Mohammed al-Dabi, who is himself suspected of taking part in the murder of civilians in Sudan.

The fact that most criticism of Arabi in Egypt is linked to foreign and not domestic policy reflects the great importance his opponents, especially the secular movements, attribute to Egypt’s status around the world, especially in the Arab world. They’re demanding that Egypt’s next president restore its status as a leading regional power.

Regarding domestic policy, the assumption is that a strong parliament with far broader powers than the previous one will successfully handle all the problems. As for the Muslim Brotherhood, its support for Arabi will make him indebted to the organization. But it appears his diplomatic positions also suit the Brothers, especially the fact he’ll be able to conduct an assertive policy against Israel.

While top Muslim Brotherhood people have made it clear to the U.S. administration that they intend to stick to the Camp David Accords and the oil-and-gas agreements with Israel, Arabi is the person who coined the term “reassessment” regarding these agreements. He was an adviser to the Egyptian delegation at Camp David and headed the Egyptian delegation in the talks on whether Egypt or Israel would get the town of Taba near Eilat.

In March he told an Egyptian television station that Egypt did not intend “at this time” to alter the agreement but “it could do that one day.” He said Egypt would stick “to the language of the agreement”: It would stop pursuing a policy of winks and nods with Israel, the way former President Hosni Mubarak did.
Iran’s not an enemy

Arabi has also made some original statements on Cairo’s relations with Tehran. He has made it clear that Egypt does not see Iran as an enemy country. “Iran is a neighboring country and we have a long historical relationship with it,” he said, along with: “We will turn over a new leaf with all countries, including Iran.”

He added that if Israel attacked the Gaza Strip, Egypt would have to consider implementing the joint Arab defense agreement, which the Arab League’s members signed in 1950. It relies on Article 51 of the UN charter allowing a group of states to defend themselves if they are attacked.

In foreign policy, therefore, Arabi is perceived as a good president for the majority party. The problem is that he too − not just parliament − will have to deal with Egypt’s thorny domestic issues. And for that it’s doubtful he has the necessary experience.