The Arab League: Alliance better known for division than unity finds common ground

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Indy Politics

The Arab League's call this week for a no-fly zone over Libya was both surprising and out of character. The 22-member pan-Arab alliance is better known for its divisions than its unity.

In the 65 years since its founding, the Arab League has rarely appeared so decisive. But with the tide of democracy sweeping the Middle East, the League can ill afford to be left behind.

Initially, it was slow to act against Libya, a fellow member. Although it suspended the North African country from the body over its handling of the popular uprising, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's forces were on the brink of seizing rebel gains before it called for a no-fly zone, a critical step in securing American and European support for the measure.

Perhaps that is because the Cairo-based Arab League has never had a democracy mandate and is loath to overstep its self-imposed boundaries. When it was formed in 1945 as a buttress to Western power, it was preoccupied with freeing Arab countries from colonial rule and preventing the Jews from forming their own state in Mandate Palestine.

In its founding charter, the Arab League made scant mention of democracy and civil rights, instead promoting closer collaboration while safeguarding the regional status quo and refraining from interference in other members' affairs. And it has largely been so.

There are exceptions, of course. The League condemned Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait – after some deliberation – and it has played an intermediary role in the Arab-Israeli conflict, putting forward a comprehensive peace proposal in 2002, which was rejected by Israel, and more recently in providing political cover for Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas when he agreed to revive peace talks amid a climate of distrust.

Anything more substantial or controversial, though, has been hampered by the divisions between the Arab countries themselves, essentially depriving the League of any influence in high-level politics.

Traditional monarchies, such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan, have quarrelled with the so-called "new" republics such as Egypt and Libya,while Iraq has sparred with Egypt for the leadership.

During the Iraq War, the extent of their differences was made clear, with member states deeply divided over Western involvement. If there is an issue on which the member states share a firm consensus, it is their opposition to Israel's continued occupation of the Palestinian territories, a single issue which has dominated the League's agenda – arguably to the detriment of other business.

When Amr Moussa, the charismatic Egyptian diplomat, took the helm a decade ago, it was seen in some circles as an effort to sideline him because his popularity worried Hosni Mubarak's regime.

Nevertheless, even the man Time magazine once described as "the most adored public servant in the Arab world" was unable to live up to his promise to turn the League into a powerful force of unified Arab opinion.

As the Arab Spring takes root, the League is being forced to examine its public image. It is perhaps ironic that it is when Mr Moussa has thrown his hat into the ring for the Egyptian presidency after Mr Mubarak's dramatic fall that the Arab League is at its most determined yet to prove its pro-democracy credentials.