By Asha Pandya and Jonathan Raymond
Cairo, EGYPT – The Arab League, at its inception roughly 60 years ago, was focused on the singular goal of unity among Arab nations in the Middle East.
Since then, said Hesham Youseff at a meeting on May 21 with a group of American college students from Northeastern University, the league has evolved as it attempts to duplicate the success of other regional organizations such as the European Union.
“Probably anything that you heard about us will be negative. We have had success many times and we have had many failures and no matter what, life goes on,” said the league’s head, summing up the group’s position as a negotiator in the Arab world.
Youseff briefly explained the history of the league and touched on other subjects as he spoke at length during the give-and-take question-and-answer session. He stressed the Arab League’s role in forming political dialogue in the Middle East on issues such as peacekeeping in the region and in working toward a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
He also spent time touching on the United States’ role both with the Arab League and in the Middle East. Other issues briefly discussed included the role of women in Islamic societies, dealing with extremists, and the role of media.
Youseff said a watershed moment in the League’s history was the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, which in the ensuing decade, changed the way the United States and Arab world have engaged. “September 11 – you know we became the devils,” he said.
When asked about the Arab League’s initial impression of US President Barack Obama, he said the organization was optimistic that he could renew good will with the region and work toward a two-state solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
He added, though, that there would still be a lingering hesitancy about relations with the United States until they saw action taken. “President Barack Obama is saying the right things … but we’re waiting for policy and changes … even President Bush wanted a two-state solution, and then what happened?” he said.
Youseff also spoke about what he thought were the successes of the Arab League. He said he thought helping Lebanon reach a peace agreement and avoid civil war was one of the group’s greatest achievements.
On the issue of Islamic extremists, Youseff made the point of noting that while many may act hostile and prove difficult to deal with, some of the groups must still be engaged with, as many in the Muslim world view them as legitimate forces in government.
“You can’t bundle them together – some of them are part of political systems of the Arab world,” he said.
He also spoke emphatically on the issue of media censorship.
“Censorship is no longer a solution to anything.”
Delia Harrington, an international affairs student at Northeastern and model Arab League participant, said the experience was amazing and that she was “geeking out so badly to be here.” Harrington is in Cairo with 24 students who are participating in an intensive Arabic language program.
“I took pictures with the flag of the country I represented and held the Secretary General’s gavel and I was really excited,” she said.
Ultimately, Youseff said the organization’s goal was to simply do whatever possible to further the progress of Arab League members.
“You win some and you lose some,” he said, “and you continue what you have to do.”