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Arab League Moves to Modernize to Increase Effectiveness - 2004-03-01

Most Arab countries reject U.S. proposals designed to encourage democracy in the Middle East as interference with their internal affairs. But the outside pressure for democratic reform is forcing them to take a close look at their national policies and to modernize the Arab League, an institution set up in 1945 to promote unity among Arab countries.

Foreign ministers from the 22 member countries of the Arab League are meeting in Cairo this week, to discuss ways to reform the organization before the league's summit later this month in Tunis.

Critics say the Arab League has become ineffective. Disputes among member countries have haunted its 59-year history. Even when most members have occasionally unified against, for example, the U.S.-led war on Iraq or the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory, the Arab League wields little influence among its members.

But analyst Mohammed El-Sayed Selim, head of Cairo University's Center for Asian Studies, says because the United States has been pressing for more democracy in the Middle East, the Arab League may have to adapt.

"There are competing projects in the region, which are out to replace the League of Arab States so this is a completely different dimension that makes it urgent for the Arabs to revive or reform the League of Arab of States or else the League will go down the drain," he said.

The Arab League countries have taken several stabs at reform over the years, amending the charter and debating new policies. Its current secretary general, Amr Moussa, started pushing for more change when he took his post three-years ago. He said he wanted to transform the Arab League into, a "genuine" regional organization.

Now, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Syria have drafted a new plan proposing, in broad terms, to boost the League's decision-making role through the creation of an Arab parliament and an Arab court of justice modeled after the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

Analyst Hassan Abu Taleb, an expert on the Arab League from Cairo's Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, says the proposal rejects external pressure for reforms and stresses that political and social changes must come from within.

"I think it is better to push all the Arab countries to create its own model in democratic reform and political reform," said Mr. Abu Taleb. "Most of the Arab countries have stated they will refuse any imposed specific model of reform. "Let us create our own models and do not impose any specific agenda on our communities because this will raise a reluctance against the idea of political reform and this will affect not only these communities, but also the whole security and stability in the area, and the stability between Arab countries and the United States itself," he added.

Former Arab League secretary Esmat Abdel Meguid says the Arab League also needs to resolve its own internal disputes and focus on the most pressing issues in the region.

"Yes, there are inter-Arab problems I do not deny that," said Mr. Abdel Meguid. "Certainly the biggest problem facing us is Palestine; what is happening is Palestine which is something very, very serious. Secondly, the invasion by the United States and Britain of Iraq in March last year. These are very important elements."

On the question of peace between the Palestinians and Israelis, League spokesman Hossam Zaki says at its next meeting the Arab League will resubmit its peace plan first put forward two-years ago. That plan offers normalization of relations between the Arab world and Israel in exchange for Israel's withdrawal from occupied territory and the establishment of a Palestinian state.

"The Arab initiative, which was adopted in Beirut, I think there is also a growing consensus that this initiative needs to be put again on the table in a proper way so as to explain to the rest of the international community what the Arab side sees as a basis for a fair solution to this conflict," he commented. "This is a role that the Arab League can play. I think we have been doing it in the past but with little attention, so I think probably this time we'll try to gather more attention to this."

Analyst Mohammed El Sayed Selim says the Arab League is trying to present a unified front, but divided over how to react to U.S pressure, it is unlikely to accomplish much.

"[With] the American pressure on these countries you cannot predict what will be the outcome of that," he said. "So under the present conditions the question is, when you are trying to reform under conditions of stress and under conditions of external pressure, the mission of reform becomes extremely difficult."

Already, the official response to the U.S.-led reform initiative for the Middle East has been taken off the agenda of the ministers' meeting because of internal disputes. Some want to adopt a wait-and-see approach, others reject any form of U.S. interference, while still others prefer to pursue a dialogue with the United States.