The African Union versus Egypt

Egypt’s role in the region has been jeopardised since their suspension from the African Union.

Egypt protests
This marks the first time that the African Union has suspended one of its key member states [Reuters]

Two days after the Egyptian army overthrew President Mohamed Morsi, the Peace and Security Council (PSC) of the African Union (AU) suspended Egypt from AU participation. They issued a memo after its session on the situation in Egypt held on July 5, 2013, deciding that the “overthrow of a democratically elected president does not conform to the relevant provisions of the Egyptian Constitution and, therefore, falls under the definition of an unconstitutional change of Government”. The PSC accordingly suspended Egypt from participation in the affairs of the AU until constitutional order is restored.

The significance of the decision

This is the first time the AU has applied its policies on military coups against a member of the AU’s “big five” countries. The big five – Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Nigeria and South Africa – each contribute 15 percent of the African portion of the AU’s budget. While Egypt’s suspension signifies that all member states, regardless of their importance, are subject to the same rules and regulations, the decision was not unanimous. Uganda and Djibouti (two of the 15 PSC members) expressed their reservation about the decision.

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The AU was forced to suspend Egypt due to the region’s political context. First, the AU’s legitimacy in enforcing its own policies was on the line. Remember, Morsi’s government was democratically elected; if the AU embraced the overthrow of an elected government as acceptable, its other members, and particularly smaller ones, would have accused it of unfairness for failing to enforce its norms on big countries.

Second, failing to condemn such developments would set a disastrous precedent for other African countries. As an editorial of South Africa’s Business Day newspaper put it (albeit rather harshly), “the last thing the continent needs is for the tyranny of the Big Man to be replaced by the tyranny of the mob”. Similarly, there is a risk that other countries would encourage large-scale demonstrations as a pretext for ousting governments.

Third, failing to suspend Egypt undermines the continent’s dedication towards achieving democratic governance. In a statement the PSC circulated after its decision, Nigeria noted that the overthrow of Morsi “constitutes a serious setback of the remarkable progress which Africa has made in fostering the culture of democratic governance in the continent”.

In applying punitive measures against Egypt in accordance with AU law, the international body has broken ranks from much of the international community by a showing a usual, yet firm consistency to its positions. This sends a clear message that there is zero tolerance to changing governments through unconstitutional means, particularly when such governments came to power through free and fair elections. 

Ramifications and reactions

At face value, the decision seems to have no apparent bearing on Egypt; a close analysis reveals quite the opposite – the decision has serious ramifications for Egypt. With respect to the internal dynamics in Egypt, this decision, despite its limited material impact, undermines the standing of the new authorities while lending some legitimacy to those protesting against the deposing of Morsi. Regionally and globally, it also does not reflect well on Egypt’s political and diplomatic standing in Africa and the world as a whole. Within the AU, Egypt no longer has any say in policy decisions until their reinstatement. Similarly, like other countries suspended from the AU – such as Madagascar and the Central African Republic – Egypt is not eligible to be elected to any of the policy-making organs of the AU.

The situation affects not only the relationship of the interim administration within the AU, but also Cairo’s relations with individual African countries. According to Egyptian diplomats, Cairo feels dismayed by the PSC members who called for suspending them. Egypt angrily criticised countries that treated the July 3 event as a coup.

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The army-backed new administration in Cairo flatly rejected the suspension. Although angered by the decision, Cairo’s initial response appeared to brush it off as inconsequential. In an apparent reminder of its status as one of the five major contributors to the budget of the continental body, it even went as far as threatening to withdraw from the organisation.

But this was merely an empty threat. Egypt’s tie to Africa, apart from its long history, is chiefly a result of the dictate of geography. The country’s civilisation and existence is dependent on Equatorial Africa – where the source of the Nile is located. Even if we ignore everything else that binds Egypt with Africa, this geographic blessing is a natural fact from which Egypt is not willing and able to extricate itself. And, this alone is enough for Egypt to maintain and even strengthen its membership in the AU.

That Egypt values its role and membership in the AU was on display in a diplomatic offensive that Cairo launched in the weeks after the AU’s decision. The new authorities in Cairo took offence to the suspension, but rather than shrugging it off, they took a robust step by sending special envoys of the interim president to AU member states.

One such delegation visited Addis Ababa, the headquarters of the AU, from July 22-24, 2013. The interim administration expressed a firm view that the AU’s decision should be reversed. During a visit to Sierra Leone, Egyptian presidential envoy Raouf Saad stated, “We have officially rejected the AU’s decision in form and content because it was based on unjustified consideration, and we want it reversed.” He further added, “No criteria of a coup d’etat was applied in our situation.”

Will Egypt’s aggressive campaign be successful?

There’s a large on-going media campaign brewing between both AU and Egypt supporters. On a few occasions, President Konare has allegedly suggested that “the AU needs to reconsider its suspension of Egypt”. This has been strongly denied by AU officials.

Egypt’s campaign is premised on the firm belief that what happened on July 3 does not constitute an unconstitutional change – and as a result, does not warrant a suspension. For the interim administration in Cairo, what happened on that day was the “will of the people of Egypt”. According to this view, the AU misinterpreted events and should reverse the suspension.

Egypt is barred from participating in AU affairs 'until constitutional order is restored'.

by -African Union Peace and Security Council

While there is no doubt that there is sympathy to this view, the fact that millions of people supported the overthrow does not make it legitimate – particularly if there is a significant population that opposes the deposal. Despite its diplomatic campaign and the sympathy it has attracted, Egypt’s volatile situation since the AU’s decision does not bode well for the interim administration’s arguments. The significant percentages of the Egyptian public that oppose the removal of Morsi vindicate and strengthen the position taken by the AU.  

According to the PSC brief, Egypt is barred from participating in AU affairs “until constitutional order is restored”. Although the new administration is counting on the precedent set by the AU when it reinstated Mali, it appears that the AU will uphold the suspension of Egypt until a new government is formed through free and fair elections. During the press briefing after the July 5 PSC meeting, AU Commission Chairperson Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma said: “Nobody will sit behind the (Egyptian) flag – neither the previous government nor the present interim government – until there is an election.” Similarly, the Director of AU’s Department of Peace and Security El Ghassim Wane stated that returning Egypt to constitutional order “has to happen through elections that are free and fair. This has to happen without delay and through a consultation process”.

In a statement it issued on July 29, after reviewing the situation in Egypt, the PSC called on “all Egyptian stakeholders to work together, in a spirit of mutual tolerance and compromise, towards an inclusive transition that would lead to the early return to constitutional order in the country”. Clearly, an inclusive transition is a pre-requisite for return to constitutional order.

Despite the interim administration’s diplomatic efforts, there is little hope of reversing Egypt’s suspension before constitutional order is restored. With no inclusive process on the horizon, the interim government faces the near-certain possibility of remaining outside of AU’s processes for many months to come. The way things are looking now, it is a bleak prospect that anything will change in the coming weeks – or even months.

Solomon Ayele Dersso, a legal academic and analyst of African affairs who regularly writes on African Union issues, is a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, Addis Ababa office.