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A Man for the Moment in the Middle East


Nabil Elaraby is a name to remember as crisis builds in Syria and citizens in other countries in the Arab world worry about where their hard-won revolutions are taking them. Elaraby, a 76-year-old Egyptian diplomat, is secretary-general of the Arab League, a position he has held for less than five months. But his impact on the once-dithering regional organization and on the region itself is already being felt.

Taking on the Arab League leadership has meant intensive concentration on the region’s collective response not only to the turmoil in half a dozen countries, some of them Egypt’s neighbors, but also to the decision by the Palestinian leadership to bid for full UN membership.

Elaraby is known to have regarded the Palestinian decision with some skepticism, before supporting the move when it was clear that peace talks with Israel were not likely to resume. The Palestinians persuaded him and others that they had no alternative. But their ill-timed campaign for a United Nations seat failed to get the required Security Council support – even before the United States had to consider using its veto.

Nabil Elaraby, left, secretary-general of the Arab League, with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at a Paris conference involving the new Libyan government this fall. News reports say that Elaraby pushed the Arab League to drop Syria from its ranks recently. ESKINDER DEBEBE/UN PHOTO

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Most recently Elaraby steered the Arab League into action against government repression of protests in Syria, where several thousand people have been killed and the country has effectively disintegrated into pockets of pro- or anti-government forces. On Nov. 12, the Arab League voted at its headquarters in Cairo to suspend the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, a step that would have been unheard of in the past, when Arab nations tended to close ranks around their own. (An exception was the league’s decision in March to back international intervention in Libya, where Muammar el-Qaddafi was a far less important figure than Assad and had few friends among fellow Arab leaders.)

News reports say that Elaraby forced a vote on Syria rather than haggle to find a consensus within the league. Of the 22 members, 18 supported suspending the Assad regime, with two votes against it from Lebanon (where Syria has considerable influence) and Yemen, which may consider itself next in line for attention. Iraq abstained and Syria did not vote.

The reaction to Syrian government intransigence and violence against its own people brought Arab nations more into line with international condemnation of President Assad. It also demonstrated that with Elaraby as secretary-general, the Arab League was ready to take a regional lead. A meeting with Syrian opposition members was planned for this week.

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His Years in New York at the UN

Elaraby is a familiar figure in New York and at the UN, where he served as Egyptian ambassador from 1991 to 1999. A graduate of Cairo University’s law faculty, he went on to take two more law degrees from New York University in 1969 and 1971 before joining the Egyptian foreign service. There he was named leader of several delegations in the 1970s and 1980s conducting critical negotiations with Israel.

After the revolution early this year that toppled President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Elaraby became the country’s foreign minister, a position he held until June. He became chief of the Arab League on July 1.
In post-revolutionary Egypt, Elaraby also played a role as go-between for the military leadership, which retained power in the transition, and Egyptian pro-democracy advocates, with whom he appeared to have popular respect.

In April, in the Suez Canal port of Ismailia, leaders of a youth organization told me that they had invited him to come and speak – not about the country’s foreign policy, but about the way forward for Egyptian society and politics. They said that they considered him a wise man and wanted his guidance.

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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

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