CAIRO — Long thought of as a useless talk shop or stage for political theater, the Arab League is seeking to transform itself with the seismic changes from the Middle East's revolts. It has shaken off decades of near total submission to the will of the region's leaders, and reformers inside the league want to turn it into a voice for the Arab public.
The 21-member group is far from becoming an Arab version of the European Union, where member states have surrendered significant powers to the commission in Brussels, allowing it to enforce rules on anything from monetary policy to immigration. In the Arab world, governments remain entrenched against anything they see as infringing on their sovereignty.
Still, the league has undoubtedly taken steps to date that would have been unthinkable only less than two years ago.
Last year, the league sided with rebels fighting the regime of Moammar Gadhafi in Libya, recommending the U.N. Security Council impose a no-fly zone on the North African nation. The Arab backing was crucial to passing the U.N. resolution and paved the way to NATO's air campaign against Gadhafi's troops which eventually allowed a rebel victory.
The league again sided with a rebellion against the authoritarian regime of Syria's Bashar Assad. It suspended Damascus' membership and has tried to push diplomatic solutions to eventually get Assad out of power – though like U.N. efforts, attempts at a negotiated peace for the conflict, now in its 19th month, have floundered in the face of the all-or-nothing battle on the ground.
Gadhafi and Assad had few friends among the Arab leaders. Still, the region's leaders approved the unprecedented actions on Libya and Syria despite their strong fears of setting a precedent that could one day be used against them, reformers point out.
More recently, the league has formed commissions to investigate and report on human rights in member states, to boost the role of civil society groups and to tap into the resources of millions of Arabs living in the diaspora who have long been ignored. Such commissions could put the league in the position of "meddling" in its members' domestic affairs, something it assiduously avoided doing in the past.
"It's a long journey but, like all journeys, it begins with a single step," said Ali Jaroush, head of the league's Arab affairs' department, of efforts to reform the organization. "We have no illusions about it and we know it will not happen overnight and that we will be met with resistance. But, after the Arab Spring, everyone is looking at us and thinking we should represent the people."
The Arab Spring uprisings since late 2010 have swept away leaders in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen – and Syria's could be next. Even in Arab countries where longtime leaders remain in place, the revolts have fueled ambitions in the Arab public to have a greater voice in their affairs.
The Cairo-based league, founded 44 years ago and now encompassing members from Morocco to the Persian Gulf, has hardly been a venue for actually promoting the welfare and rights of the region's more than 300 million people.
Its resolutions on regional issues were so tepid or repetitive of old, entrenched ideas that they were ignored even by members. Governments prevented any real action. Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak treated the league as an extension of his foreign policy.
It tossed out founding member Egypt for almost a decade for signing a 1979 peace deal with Israel. Its annual summits often turned into farce, plagued by boycotts as each year one or more of the various kings, presidents and emirs would refuse to sit with a particular rival. Libya's Moammar Gadhafi was notorious for picking fights, bickering several times with Saudi King Abdullah in sessions aired live on TV across the Arab world. Assad often droned in painfully long, improvised speeches. Mubarak bullied participants in a summit held following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990.
Having several freely elected leaders for the first time – such as Egypt's new Islamist President Mohammed Morsi – may not make an immediate difference. They very likely could prove as jealous of their national sovereignty as the numerous autocrats who remain in place.
"The biggest hurdle facing the reform of the league is the very political nature of Arab nations. Will there ever be an effective Arab security council? An Arab court of justice? Genuine economic integration?" Egyptian political scientist Hassan Nafaah said.
Under Nabil Elarabi – the post-Arab Spring secretary-general of the league – the body is making small moves to bypass governments and appeal directly to the public. He has formed a high-level committee to come up with reforms.
Abdel-Raouf el-Reidi, Egypt's former ambassador to the United States, said he proposed to the committee the creation of a directly elected Arab parliament to "serve as a nucleus of genuine reform."
"There can be no reform of the league unless that reform comes from the people," he said.
Jaroush, a Lebanese and a longtime Arab League diplomat, argues that the league is making significant headway in areas that don't attract much attention like cooperation in culture and education.
A ministerial session by the U.N. security Council scheduled for Sept. 26 will pay homage to the "change in the Arab world," and explore increased cooperation between the council and league.
"The Arab League has undergone a remarkable development over the last two years," Peter Wittig, Germany's U.N. Ambassador, whose country currently holds the council's presidency. "It is without any doubt a first rate regional actor with important decisions and resolutions, contributing to the resolution of conflicts," he told a news conference in New York earlier this month.
The seed for the "new" Arab League came with Egypt's Amr Moussa becoming its secretary general in 2000. Soon after the Arab Spring began with an uprising in Tunisia in late 2010, Moussa took the unprecedented step of speaking publicly of the growing frustration of Arabs in the face of political oppression and social injustices, warning of more revolts in the region.
In many ways, the region's peoples have greater bonds than Europeans do. Arabs speak one language, Arabic, are overwhelmingly Muslim and share similar social and cultural customs. And the flourishing of pan-Arab media have promoted even greater cultural bonds, with Arabs across the region watching the same news bulletins, movies, even reality and talent shows. They instantly exchange ideas and views on such major issues as freedom, religion and democracy on the Internet's social networks.
But the region remains starkly divided among nations that throw up significant barriers to trade and movement.
"The effectiveness of the Arab League will remain limited until Arab nations change and be ready to surrender some of their sovereignty," said Gamal Abdel-Gawad of Cairo's Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. "Its decisions remain to this day a reflection of the political will of its member states, not its own."
Associated Press correspondent Edith Lederer contributed to this report from the United Nations.