AU summit 32: Egypt takes the wheel at the AU

In its first stint as African Union chair, Egypt will likely prioritise economic goals.

32nd AU summit in focus – an ISS PSC Report six-part series:

On 2 February, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi held a cabinet meeting to review final preparations for his chairmanship of the African Union (AU) which begins on 10 February. As a founding member of the Organisation of African Unity, and chair in 1964, 1989 and 1993, Egypt is not new to such important continental roles.

However this is the first time since the AU’s founding in 2002 that Egypt gets to steer the organisation’s affairs. It’s a significant development considering the frosty relationship in recent years between the AU and Egypt. In 2013, Egypt was suspended from the union following the political crisis in the country during the 2011 Arab Spring.

The role comes at a time when both the AU and Egypt are undergoing major changes. AU reform is aimed at more effectively addressing the continent’s challenges. Egypt is trying to reposition itself in sub-Saharan Africa to pursue and protect its strategic interests. So the timing of Egypt’s chairmanship is an opportunity to contribute to the AU’s quest for reforms while pursuing its foreign policy goals.

In the run-up to the AU summit in Addis Ababa this week, the Egyptian foreign ministry has outlined six priority areas for their 2019 AU chairmanship: building bridges among Africa’s people; cooperating with partners; economic and regional integration; economic and social development; institutional and financial reform of the AU; and peace and security. What do these priorities imply for Africa?

This is the first time since the AU’s founding that Egypt gets to steer the organisation’s affairs

The choice of priorities defines Egyptian interpretation of Africa’s current problem and what the country’s leadership thinks it can contribute. Egypt sees itself as having a background of national economic, social and structural reforms that have helped its development – and provide lessons for African countries on the same trajectory.

Egypt has prioritised the promotion of intra-African trade as per Sisi’s statements at the Africa 2018 Forum at Sharm El-Sheikh in December 2018. According to Sisi, Egypt was ‘keen on increasing its investments in Africa during 2018 by $1.2 billion to reach $10.2 billion’.

With two key priority areas dedicated to economic matters, Egypt seems to suggest that the financial state of the continent is a top priority for its chairmanship. This could boost ongoing efforts to implement the Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA) agreement if Egypt leads on promoting intra-regional trade and broader economic issues.

However Egypt is yet to ratify the CFTA. How can it push an agreement without being part of it? Besides working to bring other big economies like Nigeria on board, the first task for Egypt’s chairmanship in promoting intra-African trade and associated benefits should be to ratify the CFTA.

Egypt is repositioning itself in sub-Saharan Africa to pursue and protect its strategic interests

A focus on economic development would also be useful if it contributes to attracting foreign direct investment to improve Africa’s industrial and infrastructural base. Without the right industries to add value to African commodities, promoting intra-regional trade on a continent where most states are raw material exporters and are outward looking in their choice of trade partnerships is bound to be a mirage.

Underlying the Egyptian economic agenda is an Egyptian understanding that economic challenges are key to the African problem. Governance issues should also have been considered in the six priority areas, because they are central to Africa’s underdevelopment. The absence of governance is a major policy gap.

It is also evident that the focus areas are shaped by Egypt’s own interests. On peace and security, for instance, Egypt’s priorities include pushing for the establishment of the AU Centre for Post-Conflict Reconstruction and Development in Cairo, and the launch of a high-level continental dialogue forum in Aswan, Egypt – the Aswan Forum for Peace and Sustainable Development.

The two projects are expected to help achieve peace and lasting solutions to forced displacement, which align with the AU’s theme of the year. These proposals are laudable, but pushing for their implementation in 2019 will reinforce perceptions that the AU chairmanship is being used by some African powers to shape regional and domestic agendas.

The absence of governance on Egypt’s priority list for its term as AU chair is a major policy gap

Besides Egypt’s priorities, several continental problems await the new chair. These are the Libyan crisis, terrorism in the Sahel, ongoing protests in Sudan, conflicts in South Sudan and Somalia, the impact of climate change, the management of the Nile, and border disputes.

The Red Sea crisis is another important issue for Egyptian foreign policy. This and the tensions around the Nile have made the East and Horn of Africa a hotbed of competing regional and international interests. It remains to be seen whether an Egyptian chairmanship will prioritise these issues for the AU to deal with.

Perhaps the biggest test the chair will face in 2019 is managing perceptions in some sub-Saharan African circles about Egyptian interests on the continent and commitment to ongoing AU reform.

Notwithstanding the challenges, many North Africans have high expectations of Sisi’s 2019 leadership of the AU. According to the Egyptian foreign ministry, the country is keen to ‘achieve tangible results’. Even though the chairman has considerable power to influence the AU’s agenda, overall change requires action from the entire institution, not the chairman alone.

For Sisi to make a meaningful contribution at the helm of the AU, he needs to keep up momentum for reform, which will help the continental body achieve results.

Andrews Atta-Asamoah, Senior Research Fellow, ISS Addis Ababa

This is the fourth in a series of articles focusing on the African Union summit which starts this week. The 2019 AU theme focuses on finding solutions to forced displacement in Africa.

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