Egypt vs African Union: A mutually unhappy ending?

The year-long wrestling match between the African Union and Egypt has left its scars on both fighters.

Egypt's president Abdel Fattah El Sisi arrives in Algiers, his first trip abroad since being elected in May [AFP]

After almost a year of suspension, Egypt has been brought back into the fold of the African Union (AU). Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi‘s government resumed its active membership during the AU summit held in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, after the AU’s Peace and Security Council – the body which slapped the sanction on Egypt in July 2013 – lifted its block last month.

Riding on the back of massive protests in Egypt, Sisi, then minister of defence and head of the army, announced on July 3, 2013 that Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, had been removed from power.

While most global actors shied away from outright condemnation of Morsi’s ousting, the AU broke ranks with the international community. The AU treated Sisi’s move as an unconstitutional change of government – the occurrence of which in any member state of the AU results in suspension.

While Egypt’s initial response was to brush off the rebuke as inconsequential, in the following weeks, Cairo launched a diplomatic offensive – sending envoys to African capitals lobbying for the reversal of the decision.

Egypt’s diplomatic standing

Admittedly, the AU suspension had little impact on events in the country, but it was not entirely without consequence. As I argued at the time, the decision reflected poorly on Egypt’s diplomatic standing across the region and further afield.

The AU’s High-Level Panel on Egypt documented the course of political events in Egypt since Morsi’s ousting during a series of official visits to the country. Its reports do not tell a good story about either the transition that followed the ouster of Morsi or the conditions under which elections were held.

There remain fears that the reinstatement of Egypt has set a bad precedent. Future coup plotters may cite the example of Egypt to legitimise unconstitutional seizure of power by holding elections. The AU did, however, state in its decision that its future application of its rule would be unaffected.

Egypt was one of the countries under AU sanction which was not invited by the White House to take part in August’s US-Africa summit in Washington, DC.

Egypt fought tooth and nail for its reinstatement to the AU. During its frantic diplomacy in capitals across the continent, Cairo insisted the AU had failed to understand the situation in Egypt and had taken a misguided decision.

Indeed, throughout the country’s suspension, the military-dominated interim authorities continued to argue that the events of July 3 were the result of a popular uprising, pure and simple, and therefore did not amount to an unconstitutional change of government.

Given the decisive role of the military in ousting Morsi, the AU rejected Cairo’s view of recent history. Egyptian officials continued their robust diplomatic campaign as presidential elections wrapped up, using all its leverage upon AU member states.

Additionally, as noted in the AU panel’s final report, the conclusion of the presidential election and Sisi’s eventual official ascension to power was seen as a turning point. 

Cairo viewed this show of new-found electoral legitimacy as the fulfilment of the conditions required for its reinstatement. Further diplomatic scrambling followed. The date initially assigned for deciding the matter, June 25, was brought forward to June 17.

Following the presidential election, many in the AU felt that continuing to keep Egypt in the cold would not serve the organisation’s objectives. Furthermore, the AU was not able to escape from George Orwell’s famous Animal Farm rule: All are equal but some are more equal than others. It opted for pragmatism over principle by reinstating Egypt.

The reinstatement has detracted from the bloc’s stance of standing up to an important – read “powerful” – AU member state.

In contrast to its original suspension, which illustrated an even-handed application of its rules to nations big and small, the reinstatement brought the future application of AU rules on unconstitutional governmental changes – and the ability of the AU to enforce its own rules – into question.

Serious challenge to AU

As the AU panel itself admitted, Sisi’s emergence as Egypt’s elected president, “who was the head of the army and minister of defence at the time of the unconstitutional change of government, poses a serious challenge to the AU”. This was due to the AU rule banning perpetrators of unconstitutional governmental change from participating in elections held for restoring constitutional rule.

As feared in the days before the decision, in failing to uphold this rule, the AU has been seen to be bowing to the pressure of one of Africa’s major powers of – as in Orwell’s Animal Farm.

In light of the fact that this rule was enforced against other nations – including Niger, Guinea, Madagascar, Mali and the Central African Republic –  the AU is unable to avoid charges of double standards being levelled against it.

There remain fears that the reinstatement of Egypt has set a bad precedent. Future coup plotters may cite the example of Egypt to legitimise unconstitutional seizure of power by holding elections. The AU did, however, state in its decision that its future application of its rule would be unaffected.

While much of the diplomatic and media attention focused on Egypt’s readmission, the AU’s embrace of Egypt is not completely comfortable. Unlike recent similar cases of readmission, including that of Madagascar and Guinea-Bissau, the AU’s decision reflects a lack of enthusiasm to endorse the conditions in Egypt as manifesting the full restoration of constitutional order and being in full compliance with established AU norms.

Significantly, the lifting of the suspension did not lead to Egypt’s removal from the agenda of the Peace and Security Council. In endorsing the recommendations of the AU’s High-Level Panel, the council stated that there remain major issues in Egypt that require sorting out.

On the positive side, the AU now has a fully equipped framework to deal with cases of unconstitutional changes of government backed by popular uprisings.

But the year-long wrestling match between the AU and Egypt has left its scars on both fighters. Egypt is now among the list of countries that have suffered the AU’s sanctions – while the AU’s climb-down, despite its initial principled stand, has not left it unscathed.

Solomon Ayele Dersso is a legal academic and analyst of African affairs who regularly writes on African issues. He is head of the Peace and Security Council Report at the Institute for Security Studies, Addis Ababa office.