Egypt takes helm at African Union

Vastavam web: Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who led an active, reformist tenure as African Union chair, on Sunday passes the baton to Egypt, seen as more likely to focus on security issues than expanding the powers of the body. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi will officially take over the post of ceremonial head of the AU which rotates between the five regions of the continent at the start of a two-day summit in Addis Ababa.

While multiple crises on the continent will be on the agenda of heads of state from the 55 member nations, the summit will also focus on institutional reforms, and the establishment of a continent-wide free trade zone. The Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA) was agreed by 44 nations in March 2018, but only 19 countries have ratified the agreement, with 22 needed for it to come into effect. Sisi is however expected to focus more on security, peacekeeping and post-war reconstruction, issues closely tied to the AU’s 2019 theme of “Refugees, Returnees and Internally Displaced Persons”.

“Egypt has an interest in Africa, they want to strengthen their position on the African continent and they don’t want to be seen as a country only focused on the Arab world,” said Liesl Louw-Vaudran, an analyst at the Institute for Security Studies. United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Saturday that peaceful elections in DR Congo, Mali and Madagascar, as well as peace deals in South Sudan and Central African Republic and the truce between Ethiopia and Eritrea, were signs of a “wind of hope” on the continent.

Like other regional heavyweights Nigeria and South Africa, Egypt is not keen on a powerful AU, an African diplomat told AFP. Especially because Cairo has “never forgotten” its suspension in 2013 after Egypt’s army deposed Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, who in 2012 became the country’s first democratically elected president, the diplomat said.

“Traditionally, leaders of big powers have not really helped the position of AU chairperson, as they don’t want an AU which is too strong or too intrusive,” said Elissa Jobson of the International Crisis Group.

“The AU and the AU commission are only as strong as its members want them to be. Unlike the EU, African countries have not transferred some of their sovereignty to the AU.” Kagame suffered a crushing blow from the AU after expressing “serious doubts” about the results of Democratic Republic of Congo’s recent presidential election, which was officially won by Felix Tshisekedi. “This whole thing was an embarrassment for the AU, it showed the limitations of what the AU chairperson can do,” said Jobson. Amnesty International expressed fears that Egypt’s chairmanship could undermine human rights mechanisms in the AU.