ISS: The AU on Egypt – between a rock and a hard place?


It is official: the referee and kingmaker in Egypt’s post-Mubarak upheavals, the Egyptian army, now has one of its own as the country’s new president.

Former army chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi enjoyed an overwhelming victory in the presidential election held from 26 to 28 May, gaining 96,91% of the votes according to the country’s election commission.

Riding on the massive protests that erupted on 30 June last year, the military had taken the decisive step of removing Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, on 3 July 2013. Although many in the international community did not condemn this move, they didn’t welcome Morsi’s ousting either. Indeed, Egypt’s international relations – including with its major ally, the United States – soured after Morsi’s removal.

The most notable of these international responses was the African Union’s (AU) decision on 5 July 2013 to suspend Egypt’s membership. The AU treated Morsi’s overthrow as an unconstitutional change of government, which is prohibited in the various instruments to which Egypt has subscribed. Under the Lomé Declaration of 2000, unconstitutional change of government can be defined as a military coup d’état against a democratically elected government; intervention by mercenaries to replace a democratically elected government; replacement of a democratically elected government by armed dissident groups and rebel movements; and the refusal by an incumbent government to relinquish power to the winning party after free, fair and regular elections.

The AU did not specify which one of these definitions applies to Egypt. Despite the reluctance of AU officials to label it as such, the overthrow of Morsi – although backed by popular support – was generally considered a military coup.

In light of the above, the presidential election is therefore of significant consequence to the AU – perhaps more so than for others in the international community. Given that the election was the last major component of the transitional processes, the AU is now expected to decide whether or not to lift Egypt’s suspension. Unlike Madagascar, which was reinstated at the AU Summit in January after its successful presidential election in December last year, Egypt presents a serious challenge.

According to the AU norm banning unconstitutional changes of government, perpetrators shall not be allowed to participate in elections held to restore democratic order – nor should they be allowed to hold any position of responsibility in political institutions of their state. Given that El-Sisi played a decisive part in Morsi’s removal, Egypt should, according to this rule, remain suspended. This would mean keeping Egypt in the cold for a prolonged period of time. On the other hand, if the AU were to lift the suspension, it would mean going against its own norm.

Since this particular rule only became legally binding in 2010, the argument that Egypt’s return ought to be no different to the AU’s readmission of Mauritania in 2008 – when the coup leader was elected as the country’s president – does not necessarily hold.

The AU therefore seems to be caught between a rock and a hard place. Either it lifts the sanction on Egypt and suffers a dent to its credibility; or it upholds its principles and creates the de facto exclusion of Egypt for an indefinite period of time. Should the AU opt for the former, it will be seen to have accepted the legitimisation of unconstitutional seizure of power.

Given the stark consequences of either option, it would be a matter of choosing the better of two evils. In the particular context of this case, the AU would have to decide which option would best serve the objectives and purpose of its norm on unconstitutional changes of government. Alternatively, it would have to be decided on pragmatic considerations.

If the AU decides to give any weight at all to the need to avoid Egypt’s indefinite suspension, it is imperative that it explicitly states that this does not set a precedent for future cases. Without such an explicit statement, the rule banning the unconstitutional seizure of power through election will lose its legitimacy for future application.

All indications are that there is very little appetite within the AU – to a large degree due to Egypt’s aggressive lobbying – to continue Egypt’s suspension. A number of AU member states are resigned to the idea of lifting Egypt’s suspension, even if this would contradict the rule banning perpetrators from participating in elections, or holding positions in a new government. The AU has also deployed election monitors, implicitly recognising and legitimising El-Sisi’s candidacy.

As far back as January this year, AU’s High Level Panel on Egypt expressed its hope that, with the national elections, the transition process in Egypt would be completed. On its part the Peace and Security Council, the body that decides on the matter, stated that it ‘looks forward to the early completion of the process to restore constitutional order’ and expressed ‘its readiness to take the required decisions’ (a euphemism for lifting sanctions), based on a report to be submitted by the High Level Panel.

Unlike in July 2013, when it broke ranks from the rest of the international community, this time around the AU seems disposed to join others in giving precedence to pragmatism over principles.

Written by Solomon Ayele Dersso, Senior Researcher, Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division, ISS Addis Ababa

Republished with permission from ISS Africa. The original story can be found here.