By Samer Al-Atrush / AFP
CAIRO: Back in 2008, flamboyant Libyan leader Moammer Qaddafi warned rulers at an Arab League summit in Damascus that they, too, could face the fate of executed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
The assembled dictators, who between them ruled more than 300 million Arabs, burst out laughing.
Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak was there, as was Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad and Tunisian dictator Zein El-Abidine Ben Ali.
More than three years later, a wave of uprisings has swept away Mubarak and Ben Ali and left Assad clinging to power. In Libya, rebels dragged Qaddafi out of a drain pipe and shot him dead.
Buffeted by the uprisings, the Arab League too has been forced to change.
At a January 2011 summit, after Ben Ali’s overthrow, then secretary general Amr Moussa warned that “the Tunisian revolution is not far from us.”
This time none of the leaders laughed.
The 22-member league, under the rotating leadership of the tiny Gulf monarchy Qatar, realized that it had to trim its sails to stay afloat in the turbulent region, said its deputy leader Ahmed Ben Hilli.
“The Arab League had to treat this issue and stand with the people,” he said in an interview in the Cairo headquarters of the Arab League, wedged between the iconic protest hub of Tahrir Square and the Nile river.
“Because if it didn’t take this position, it would be marginalized, and find itself outside the tidal wave that calls for democracy,” Ben Hilli said.
Superpowers who had previously ignored the League — satirized in the past as a forum for inconsequential bluster — began to pay attention.
Its decision to call for a no-fly zone in Libya after suspending Tripoli from the League was seized upon by the United States and allies as key support to commence air strikes against Qaddafi’s troops.
Ironically, the seeds of that Arab League decision might have been planted by US President Barak Obama’s predecessor George Bush, widely despised in the Arab world for his invasion of Iraq.
Bush had also pressured resentful allies in the region to reform, and as democracy protest groups appeared in Egypt and elsewhere, the Arab League adopted a human rights charter in 2004.
The rights charter, said Ben Hilli, opened the way for the organization to intervene in domestic conflicts.
“There was a forceful response by the Libyan leadership, which threatened to wipe out every member of the opposition, and that was considered a violation of the charter,” he said.
But there were also other factors, as Ben Hilli readily admits, that led to the League’s call for a no-fly zone, knowing it would lead to NATO airstrikes.
“The regime in Libya was shunned by many Arab countries. It had problems with most Arab countries and that made matters easier,” he said.
Another, decisive factor was Qatar’s leadership of the League.
“It was one of the factors in reviving the League, because the (League) leadership played its role forcefully and actively,” he said.
The monarchy, with roughly 300,000 citizens and vast natural gas reserves, had sought for years to carve an influential regional role, often using its popular Al-Jazeera satellite news channel for that purpose.
“Qatar, with its immense wealth wants to make itself heard. It wants to be able to shape events,” said Theodore Karasik, an analyst with the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis.
Qatar spearheaded the Arab League’s response on Libya and Syria, he said. “That was the moment the Arab League grew some teeth and became a regional entity that could make or break a situation rather than being a regional club.”
The monarchy sent warplanes to join NATO in bombing Qaddafi’s troops, and sent weapons and soldiers to help the rebels.
It has also led the opposition to Assad, forming with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries the League’s hawkish camp which led a successful effort to suspend Syria’s membership and boycott the regime.
The fall or weakening of regional pillars such as Egypt and Syria has given the wealthy Gulf countries even more clout in the League.
Their influence has also kept the Arab League from coming down strongly against the Bahraini government’s deadly crackdown on democracy protests, which Ben Hilli described as “not a dangerous violent response.”
It also left the matter of the Yemen’s uprising, which led to President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s resignation, to the Gulf Cooperation Council to deal with, he said.
But the alignment of interests — of democracy protesters, conservative Gulf countries and Western powers that had supported the likes of Mubarak — has rejuvenated the Arab League, which hopes to maintain its newfound clout.
Secretary General Nabil Al-Araby tasked former Algerian foreign minister and UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to design a plan to restructure the League “to put forward a vision that gives the League foundations to deal with these new developments,” said Ben Hilli.
One proposal is a new, robust League security council, he said.