Sisi’s chairmanship is not the tonic the African Union currently needs
o amount of books, policy documents or research articles could have provided a more symbolic explanation of the paradoxical existence of the African Union (AU) than the picture of Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame handing over the reins of the chairpersonship of the AU Assembly to Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
Both individuals have strong military backgrounds, rule their respective countries with an iron-fist, make no pretensions about their regional hegemonic ambitions and are strong allies of the United States of America (although Egypt is more of a strategic ally). These similarities, in particular the authoritarian tendencies of both, further expose the contradiction between the AU’s stated goals of advancing democratic rights and the way it legitimises the authority of leaders who continue to suppress the freedom of their citizens.
Sisi becomes the chairperson of the AU Assembly at a critical junction of its existence, as various activities aimed at ensuring the reform of the AU are ongoing. His predecessor, Kagame, has been able to push a number of initiatives in this respect. This includes measures such as financing the AU through the 0.2% tax on eligible imports into member states, reducing the number of AU Commission departments from eight to six, and the plan to reduce the number of AU summits. Although the AU Assembly accepted most of Kagame’s reform plans, it rejected the recommendation to empower the chair of the AU Commission to appoint his or her own commissioners, as this was seen as an encroachment of member state sovereignty to drive the institution.
Sisi has expressed his intentions to consolidate these measures by outlining the six priority areas of his chairmanship. These include building bridges of cultural and civil communication among African people; reinforcing cooperation between the AU and its partners, as well as between the AU peace and security mechanisms, pushing ahead with the institutional and financial reform of the AU and expediting the operationalisation of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA).
In theory, there is no reason why Egypt should not be capable of achieving some of these objectives. It remains a key transcontinental power (in Africa and the Middle East), the third biggest economy on the continent, possesses one of the strongest and best equipped armed forces in Africa, is regarded as a cradle of civilisation, and has abundant natural resources.
In a speech delivered at the opening of the Africa Forum 2018, Sisi highlighted his government’s ambition to drive Africa’s development by indicating Egypt’s intention to increase its investments in Africa during 2018 by $1.2 billion to reach $10.2 billion. He also noted that Egypt was prepared to transfer its developmental experiences to the rest of the continent. It suffices to say that Sisi will, no doubt, use the period of his chairmanship to boost Egypt’s image in Africa and the rest of the globe.
The problem with Sisi’s Egypt
In practice, there are a couple of problems underlying Sisi’s ambitious continental drive. Issues such as a democracy deficit, Egypt’s lukewarm attitude to certain continental initiatives, tensions regarding the sharing of the Nile, and the perception that Egypt does not really consider itself an African country are undercutting factors that cannot be ignored.
As Egypt’s parliament has already approved constitutional amendments that will allow Sisi to rule until 2034, and possibly beyond, he is not expected to show any serious sympathy or support for democratic movements against unconstitutional extension of term limits across the continent.
The Egyptian parliament has passed a series of laws to grant government sweeping powers to curtail the activities of NGOs and the media. Sisi has capitalised on this by embarking on a series of measures to curb freedom of expression and the wanton violation of civil and political rights of ordinary Egyptians. These include large scale arrest, torture and enforced disappearances of dissidents, and unfair mass trials.
By excluding the consideration of human rights and democracy matters from his priority list during his chairmanship, Sisi has implicitly made it clear that his tenure will markedly ignore both domestic and regional pressures for the advancement of fundamental rights. Some observers have indicated that Sisi’s tenure will be devoted to issues of security and peacekeeping, especially the establishment of the AU Centre for Post-Conflict Reconstruction and Development in Cairo. He would also be more concerned about the security situation in neighbouring Libya.
As Egypt’s parliament has already approved constitutional amendments that will allow Sisi to rule until 2034 and possibly beyond, he is not expected to show any serious sympathy or support for democratic movements against unconstitutional extension of term limits across the continent. In addition, Sisi is unlikely to stop the continued suppression of the opposition in Egypt, as the chairmanship position shields him from any serious censure by the AU. Human right bodies like Amnesty have warned that his tenure might potentially undercut the efficacy of AU human rights institutions and processes.
Another concern is that while Sisi has prioritised the operationalisation of the AfCFTA, Egypt is yet to ratify the agreement. Such contradictions further illustrate Egypt’s cautious and not-so-enthusiastic approach to continental integration. Since Sisi’s party controls the Egyptian parliament, it is possible that the pace of ratifying the agreement be quickened, so as to provide positive optics for his chairmanship. This will be further boosted by the fact that the agreement is not explicitly strong on adherence to democratic values, and as such, will not threaten his authoritarianiasm.
The issue of Egypt’s problematic African identity is yet another factor. For a country that prides itself as the cradle of civilisation, and is seen as evidence of Africa’s great past, racist attitudes towards black Africans negates the essence of continental integration. Egypt’s long absence from the matrix of African integration process has further deepened the gap between it and the rest of the continent. Although this is not necessarily Sisi’s doing, there is an onus upon him to put in place measures that centre the AU’s integrative agenda in Egypt’s national life. This speaks to activities that promote free movement of persons, cultural and exchange programmes, more pragmatic and friendlier approaches to managing the Nile, and a genuine commitment to socio-economic programmes across the continent.
AU’s questionable democratic legitimacy
The legitimacy of the AU and its ongoing reform efforts ultimately rest on how it is able to project itself as an organisation committed to democratic efforts across the continent. Although the chairmanship position is largely ceremonial, it is quite symbolic as it speaks to organisational values and the high politics of driving these values. The complexity of managing the AU reform process, therefore, requires a political leadership that is not only concerned with rhetoric but shows demonstrated actions of respect for fundamental rights.
Critical reform issues such as trade, financing the AU, recruitment process of the leadership of the AU Commission, and empowering AU organs such as the Pan-African Parliament require democratic legitimacy that is derived from freedom of participation by African citizens. Furthermore, the AU’s human rights and democracy protection mechanisms remain fragile and dysfunctional, and thus require an efficient support structure. By electing a chairperson who explicitly abhors elements of democratisation, the AU makes a mockery of its supposed foundational ethos, and once again, indefinitely defers the existence of a truly democratic AU.
(Main image: Egyptian President and new African Union chairperson Abdel Fattah al-Sisi speaks during the 32nd African Union summit in Addis Ababa on 10 February 2019. – Simon Maina/AFP/Getty Images)
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA or CIGI.