As the crisis deepens and unrest spreads in Egypt following the ousting of Mohamed Morsi as Egyptian president, there remains little international consensus on the fast-moving developments in the country.
While most countries have expressed “concern”, and “hope for a rapid return to democracy”, a decisive international condemnation against the overthrow of the democratically elected government has remained unseen.
In this light, the swift action by the African Union is noteworthy.
The African Union’s Peace and Security Council (PSC) on Friday suspended Egypt from all activities, following the overthrow of Morsi’s government and called for an immediate return to “constitutional order”.
Egypt becomes the fourth country in the past four years, after Madagascar, the Central African Republic, Guinea-Bissau and Mali (which has since been reinstated) to be suspended from the organisation.
The Egyptian foreign ministry responded immediately to the suspension by expressing “deep regret” in a statement posted on its official Facebook page.
While the AU’s move is customary in the event of the interruption of a member country’s constitution, it is still remarkably significant given the international indecision that has lingered following Morsi’s removal from power, and fears of such an incident creating a precedent for the continent.
It also means that Egypt has now been suspended from all branches of the AU, reducing its influence over internal African affairs, at a time when the North African giant had been attempting to regain influence in the continent.
Crucially, the PSC’s decision to suspend Egypt will likely be seen as adding legitimacy to the outrage felt by Morsi’s supporters.
Al Jazeera’s Azad Essa spoke to El Ghassim Wane, director of Peace and Security Council (PSC), the organ within the AU responsible for the suspension, about how the AU viewed the crisis unfolding in Egypt – and why the body had no choice but to suspend one of its founding members.
Al Jazeera: Why has the AU suspended Egypt’s membership?
El Ghassim Wane: The suspension is a measure that is automatically provided by the AU instrument whenever an unconstitutional change in government takes place.
It includes suspension of Egypt’s membership in AU activities, and of course this does not prevent the AU from engaging, interacting with the Egyptian authorities and other stakeholders to support the returning to constitutional order.
And we intend to fully and actively engage with the Egyptian people to help make this happen, so that elections can be held as soon as possible.
AJ: Would the AU describe the overthrowing of Morsi as a coup? Most countries and regional bodies have refrained from using the description – but where does the AU stand on the terminology?
Wane: As I said, the AU has instruments and rules, and these apply to all member states. The African test on democracy and elections and the Lome declaration of 2000 contain a definition of the AU’s understanding of an unconstitutional change of government. This includes the overthrowing of a democratically elected government – and the AU has already stated that what happened in Egypt falls under this definition.
Whenever this happens, automatically, a certain set of measures have to be taken.
AJ: Are you saying that the AU will not call this a coup?
Wane: We are calling it an unconstitutional change of government because you have a situation that falls under the definition of an overthrowing of a democratically elected government, or the overthrowing of a government that happens in violation of the rules provided by the constitution.
AJ: What would you need to see change for Egypt to be allowed back into the AU?
Wane: What should happen is to get the country back to constitutional order, and this has to happen through elections that are free and fair. This has to happen without delay and through a consultation process. And as I indicated, we stand ready to support this process.
AJ: What does Egypt lose from being suspended, and vice-versa?
Wane: I don’t think we should be framing the issue [in a way] that looks at what Egypt loses from being suspended. Instead, the issue should be looked at through the frame of what the AU has to do in implementing its policies in all AU member states.
And what the Peace and Security Council (PSC) has done today is fully in line with what has been agreed upon by all member states. Clearly what has happened in Egypt is a setback as far as the AU is concerned, and our wish is, of course, to ensure that Egypt returns to constitutional order as soon as possible.
Of course, the AU stands to gain from a strong, democratic Egypt and Egypt stands to gain from a strong African Union, applying its rules and aiming for higher standards in terms of democracy, governance and human rights.
Egypt is a committed member of the AU, a founding a member of the AU, and I’m sure they are committed to the AU.
I have no doubt about their desire to be actively participating in our activities – and I’m sure they will make every effort to ensure that these elections are held and so they regain their membership in the AU.
AJ: The AU’s position differs from much of the Arab World, in which many leaders have congratulated the new president. Does the AU’s position matter?
Wane: Look, the AU is acting on the basis of its own rules… And Egypt is one of our important member states, so I am sure that Egyptian officials will understand the rationale of the decision taken by the AU and we have no doubt whatsoever about Egypt’s commitment to the AU and its ideals.
Follow Azad Essa on Twitter: @azadessa