A seat in the sun

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By seeking to become a member of the UN Security Council, Egypt is aiming to return to its days of greatness.

It did not appear to be on Egypt’s current list of priorities but President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi has apparently made it a preference that Egypt becomes a member of the United Nations Security Council.

During his speech at the UN General Assembly last month, Al-Sisi reflected his country’s aspiration to win a seat in the Security Council, saying Egypt as a member would look out for the interests of developing countries, especially those from Africa.

It would be a big step for Egypt to enter the Security Council, a sure sign that the country is on its way back from decades of stagnation and declining stature to once again playing a prominent role in world politics and taking its historical place as a pivotal player in the Arab world and the rest of the world.

Being on the Security Council, whether on a rotating basis or a permanent member, affords any country much worldwide prestige. The council is one of the six principal organs of the United Nations and is charged with the epic task of maintaining international peace and security. Its powers include the establishment of peacekeeping operations, the establishment of international sanctions, and in its most famous part of its job, authorisation of military action through Security Council resolutions. It is also the only UN body with the authority to issue binding resolutions to member states. These powers accord the Security Council and its members an importance and standing that few countries in the world can boast.

Egypt has been there before, to the Security Council five times since the council was established in 1945: 1946, 1949-1950, 1961-1962, 1984-1985, and 1996-1997. But like most countries, Egypt is not and never has been a permanent member. That club is private, closed to the privileged few, the five permanent states — the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, China and France, all of whom possess veto powers. Ten non-permanent member states change by General Assembly voting every two years. Five new members are elected every year to replace two-year-old members.

By no coincidence, these big five were the victorious powers in World War II and have maintained the world’s most powerful military forces ever since. Until 2012 (when Japan surpassed France), they annually topped the list of countries with the highest military expenditures.

In 2013, they spent over $1 trillion combined on defence, accounting for over 55 percent of global military expenditures (the US alone accounting for over 35 percent). They are also among the world’s largest arms exporters and are the only nations officially recognised as nuclear weapons states under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, though there are other states known or believed to be in possession of nuclear weapons.

To have Egypt among such vaunted company, where it can press the buttons of war and peace, would be a big accomplishment. Although Egypt has its sights fixed on a non-permanent seat, it actually should aim for something higher. In fact, at one time Cairo was considered a strong candidate for permanent membership. When former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan asked a team of advisers to come up with recommendations for reforming the UN, one proposed measure was to increase the number of permanent members by five, which, in most proposals, included one seat from Africa, most likely between Egypt, Nigeria and South Africa, and/or one seat from the Arab League, again most likely Egypt.

To be sure, Egypt seeks a seat in a body whose effectiveness and relevance is constantly questioned. Glaring failures have not only accompanied the UN’s many achievements; they have overshadowed them. In most high-profile cases, there are essentially no consequences for violating a Security Council resolution. It is also this exclusive nuclear club that is often charged with predominately addressing the strategic interests and political motives of its members — for example, protecting oil-rich Kuwait in 1991 but poorly protecting resource-poor Rwanda in 1994. Since three of the five permanent members are European, and three are predominantly white Western nations, the Security Council has also been described as a pillar of global apartheid.

But while most everyone agrees that the present structure is flawed, consensus on how to fix it remains out of reach. It was this roadblock which forced Saudi Arabia to do what has never been done before: decline a Security Council seat after winning one. Last year, Saudi Arabia was elected to the council after a UN General Assembly election on Thursday; on Friday it rejected the seat. Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs explained in a statement that the “current double standards in the UNSC are preventing the council from carrying out its duties and responsibilities towards maintaining world peace and security” and that the UNSC is “in need of comprehensive reforms including limiting the scope of using the veto”.

It was by all means a brave decision by the Saudis to forgo such a lofty global position they had initially worked on very hard for years to get. But that’s what it wanted and its decision was supported by the Arab League as being one of principle.

Not to say Egypt’s principles are by any means less. Egypt seeks a Security Council seat because it is has a long history of supporting liberation and independence of Third World countries and because of its traditional heavyweight role in the Arab, African and Islamic arenas.

The Egyptian stance on the Security Council would also be based on trying to increase the representation of the developing countries in the Security Council,obtain for them what Egypt hopes can be two permanent and five non-permanent seats.

Egypt’s UN credentials are numerous. It was one of the 51 founding countries of the UN. It has been actively participating in all UN activities in political, economic and social domains as well as in the peacekeeping operations in many parts in Africa. And one of its own, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, was one of only eight UN secretary-generals.

With such a distinguished UN record, Egypt should have a permanent Security Council seat. In the end, to make matters clear, the UN is not entirely sterile. In 2005, the Human Security Report documented a decline in the number of wars, genocides and human rights abuses since the end of the Cold War, and presented evidence, albeit circumstantial, that international activism — mostly spearheaded by the UN — has been the main cause of the decline in armed conflict since the end of the Cold War.

True, Egyptians have serious domestic problems which need immediate and constant attention. The man on the street is more concerned about power blackouts than wielding power in the UN. But he must realise that power comes in many forms.

Alaa Abdel-Ghani is an affiliate professor, Faculty of Journalism, American University in Cairo.