CAIRO (Reuters) - Arab states picked Egypt’s foreign minister on Sunday to lead the Arab League during a period of unprecedented turmoil in the region and after last minute diplomacy left only one candidate in the race.
Nabil Elaraby, nominated shortly before foreign ministers confirmed his appointment, takes over from Amr Moussa, another former Egyptian foreign minister who led the 22-nation Cairo-based body for 10 years. Qatar had withdrawn its nominee.
Since the start of 2011, Egyptians and Tunisians have thrown out presidents who had ruled for decades. Libya, Yemen and Syria have faced unprecedented challenges to well-established rulers and protests have unsettled other Arab monarchs and presidents.
“I am taking this difficult task at a time when the Arab nation is going through many problems,” Elaraby said in a speech. “This is the toughest assignment I will have.”
Since the League was founded in 1945, its chief has been Egyptian except for a 10-year hiatus when Egypt was suspended from the League for its 1979 peace treaty with Israel.
“For Egypt to sacrifice its foreign minister is sending a message that it is keen on keeping the Arab League alive at a time when the political circumstances in the region may weaken it,” said Hassan Abou Taleb of Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.
The League has long been viewed by many Arabs as a talking shop for leaders that has failed to adequately deal with challenges besetting the region, such as the Palestinian and Israel conflict and other sources of Middle East tension.
Egypt initially fielded career diplomat Mostafa el-Fekki, a former member of parliament for Hosni Mubarak’s ruling party who quit his post during the 18-day uprising that led to the Egyptian president being pushed from power on February 11.
But Cairo at the last minute switched its backing to Elaraby, a former judge at the International Court of Justice and previously Egypt’s representative at the United Nations.
Elaraby, appointed foreign minister after Mubarak was ousted, has carved a new diplomatic track for Egypt since becoming minister. He has been a tougher critic of Israel, more supportive of Palestinians and has offered an opening to Iran.
The Syrian Ambassador to Egypt and its representative to the Arab League, Yousef al-Ahmed, whose government is struggling to cope with pro-democracy protests, called Elaraby “the best person to express the change in the Arab World.”
“I expect the Arab League under his term to open new horizons for joint Arab action,” he said.
Asked why the Arab League had been silent about uprisings in Syria and Yemen, the Omani Foreign Affairs Minister Youssef bin Alawi bin Abdullah said: “Arab leaders have their positives and their negatives... We are not happy for any bloodshed of any people in any Arab state.”
Anissa Hassouna from the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs said the Arab League was facing a major challenge.
“It needs restructuring, facelifting and a new spirit that should reflect the aspirations of the Arab people for more freedom,” she said.
Qatar withdrew its candidate, Abdulrahman bin Hamad Al-Attiyah, a former secretary-general of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, after Egypt changed its candidate.
“It seemed that Qatar and Egypt were going to have to win or lose at the expense of the other and withdrawing both candidates is likely to have been a compromise,” said Abou Taleb.
Moussa, known for his outspoken comments including criticism of the U.S.-led Iraq war that he said would open “the gates of hell,” is running as a candidate in an election to become Egypt’s next president.