The failure of the Arab League to prevent the U.S.-led war on Iraq has led many in the Arab world to question the organization's effectiveness. Arab political and legal experts meet Thursday and Friday in Cairo to discuss reforming an institution that for almost 60 years has embodied the aspirations for unity of millions of Arabs.
The stately white building that houses the headquarters of the Arab League sits on Cairo's busy Tahrir Square. Colorful flags of the Arab League's 22 member states flutter outside, a testament of commitment to Arab unity from Morocco in the west, to Oman in the east. But many members of the Arab League, as well as many Arabs themselves, say the League needs to change.
Of course the Arab League must reform, says Lubna Farid, an Egyptian economics student at the American University in Cairo.
"The whole Arab concept of how to cooperate, Arab countries with each other," says Lubna Farid. "They need to reform the way they think. They have to be open to new changes, new technologies, new ideas. And they have to be more tolerant, to interact with one another, and stop putting past conflicts in their way."
The League's chief, Amr Moussa, initiated some reforms when he took up his post two years ago, after serving as Egypt's long-time foreign minister. But many analysts say more deep-rooted change is needed.
Mr. Moussa recently came under blistering attack from Kuwaiti officials, who accused him and the League of siding with Saddam Hussein before the recent war. Mr. Moussa denies the charges, saying the League was working to avoid conflict.
Political analyst Abdel-Moneim Said, who heads the Al-Ahram Center for Strategic Studies in Cairo, says the Arab League has faced difficult times before and has always survived. He also believes Mr. Moussa will survive this latest challenge.
"This type of crisis is not new to the Arab system of the Arab League, and I do not think it exceeds any of the previous crises," he said. "Never did it happen that a secretary-general was replaced in the middle of his term."
Mr. Moussa's predecessor, Esmat Abdel Meguid, also faced harsh criticism during the 1990s, but from the Iraqis, who charged that the League's actions favored Kuwait. Kuwait now threatens not to pay its League dues over the Iraq issue.
Critics say the pan-Arab organization has stumbled in fulfilling the pledges of its charter, which to ensure the collective defense and political and economic well-being of its members.
Gulf states, particularly, are calling for a new charter that will take into account growing differences among member states, while Libya and Syria argue there must be agreement on maintaining common policies and goals.
Others suggest the League should move in the direction of a European Union integration model, or even adopt a new voting system to make it more effective.
But analyst Abdel-Moneim Said says reaching unanimity has not been the League's problem. Its weakness, he says, is its inability to implement its decisions.
"In reality, history tells us that the problem is not getting a kind of unanimous voting on certain decisions, but the will of Arab states to implement them," explained Mr. Said. "A lot of resolutions that were agreed by all Arab states were not really implemented by them. So they take a position in the League, and when they go home, they take a different position."
Mr. Said says this is a major issue that must be tackled in the reform. He adds that he would like to see participation of non-Arab countries in the Middle East, like Turkey, Iran and Israel, either in an entirely new institution or simply by association.
The Arab League's chief spokesman, Hisham Youssef, does not rule out that possibility, but he says it will take time, especially with regard to Israel."
"These ideas have been floating for a very long time," he said. "This is not only possible. It will happen one day. The relation as far as Israel is concerned is somewhat different, because Israel is occupying Arab land. So it is very difficult to see any intensification of cooperation with any field except after peace prevails."
Hassan Nafa'a, the head of Cairo University's political science department, says even more fundamental to the reform of the Arab League is the reform of Arab member states themselves. Once the states are able to govern themselves more effectively, he says, the League will become a stronger organization.
"To be able to establish a regional working system, you have to have a domestic political system, based on democracy and civil society," Mr. Nafa'a stated. "Otherwise, we will turn in vicious circles. Reform inside all Arab countries should precede reform inside the Arab League itself."
Without major changes in Arab countries, Hassan Nafa'a says, any change in the Arab League will only be cosmetic.