An Africa Divided? Al-Sisi Assumes Chairmanship of the African Union

Cairo’s historically antagonistic relationship with the African Union (AU) has not deterred Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi from embracing his new role as chairman of the pan-African organization for 2019. While the international community is still unsure of what al-Sisi hopes to achieve in his new position, his chairmanship of the AU is likely to be just as contentious as his leadership of Egypt.
An Africa Divided Al-Sisi Assumes Chairmanship of the African Union
Image by: Abdelillah Arahal/Inside Arabia

During the 32nd Ordinary Session of the Assembly of the African Union (AU) held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, from February 10 to 11, the African bloc elected Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi its new chairman. The year-long chairmanship of the AU rotates between the five regions of Africa (North, South, East, West, and Central). Al-Sisi is the 16th African leader to be an AU chair, and the third Arab leader to hold this position.

What is the Significance of the AU?

The AU plays a significant role in Africa. The Organization of African Unity (OAU), the predecessor to the AU, was established in 1963 to end colonialism on the continent.

The AU plays a significant role in Africa. The Organization of African Unity (OAU), the predecessor to the AU, was established in 1963 to end colonialism on the continent. The independent African nations that formed the OAU promised “to bring Africans together and propel the continent towards peaceful coexistence and growth.” In 2001, the OAU was replaced by the AU, a pan-African body comprised of 55 Member States.

The AU, which officially launched in 2002, is tasked with tackling the socio-economic and political problems that affect African states. However, although the AU prides itself on providing “African solutions to African problems,” many feel that the new organization has been unsuccessful in achieving its lofty goals.

During an assembly held in Nouakchott, Mauritania, in July 2018, the AU declared 2019 the year of “Refugees, Returnees, and Internally Displaced Persons.” A timely choice as data from the UN suggests that Africa is host to about 26 percent of the world’s refugee population. At the end of 2017, the continent had 6.3 million refugees and 14.5 million internally displaced people. In 2018, these numbers increased by 170,000 and 2 million people, respectively.

At the AU summit, outgoing chairman, Rwandan President Paul Kagame, ceremonially handed over the reins of the organization to al-Sisi in front of fellow African leaders saying: “There is no doubt that you will take our union forward decisively to new and greater heights.”

Many activists have expressed concern about the Egyptian president’s leadership of the AU, given his failure to bring progress and justice to the people of his own country.

Al-Sisi’s AU Agenda

AU chairs are responsible for setting the agenda of issues to be addressed during their tenure, giving them the power to channel the influence of the organization however they wish. During Kagame’s chairmanship, the AU focused on institutional and administrative reforms.

When al-Sisi addressed the AU assembly in Addis Ababa, he emphasized that mediation and preventive diplomacy would “remain one of the priorities of the African Union” during his tenure, and he highlighted the need to continue improving “peace and security in Africa in a holistic and sustainable manner.”

“Terrorism remains cancer that affects African nations and steals the dreams of our people, and we must identify and combat those who fund terrorism activities on the continent,” al-Sisi said in his speech. However, the security and peacemaking mission that al-Sisi has announced seems contradictory as he is undoubtedly responsible for numerous human rights violations in his country.

Since 2015, the Egyptian president has carried out a “vicious and sustained political attack” on the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), the mechanism that monitors African states’ human rights records. “Dozens of cases alleging serious human rights violations have been lodged against Egypt at the ACHPR,” according to Amnesty International.

Since ascending to power, al-Sisi has demonstrated a “shocking contempt for human rights,” according to Najia Bounaim, director of Amnesty International’s North Africa campaign. Under his leadership, she said, Egypt has experienced a “catastrophic decline in rights and freedoms.” Bounaim highlighted fears about the potential impact of his chairmanship on the “independence of regional human rights mechanisms and their future engagement with civil society.”

While the international community continues to be outraged by al-Sisi’s deplorable human rights record, some sub-Saharan African diplomats have expressed other concerns. Given Egypt’s location and allegiance to the Arab world, they fear that al-Sisi is more interested in developing Arab Africa. This apparent divide, along with Egypt’s previously contentious relationship with the AU, also raises questions about what Cairo intends to do with its newfound power in the organization.

Is the AU a Powerful Regional Bloc?

Egyptian leaders have not attended AU meetings since a 1995 assassination attempt on former President, Hosni Mubarak.

Egyptian leaders have not attended AU meetings since a 1995 assassination attempt on former President, Hosni Mubarak. In 2013, Egypt was suspended from the African bloc following a military coup that removed the country’s democratically-elected leader, Mohamed Morsi, and brought al-Sisi to power. Although the AU lifted Egypt’s suspension a year later, the question remains: How valuable is AU membership to Cairo and to al-Sisi’s agenda in Egypt and beyond?  

When asked if the AU was an organization worth belonging to in the 21st century, Soloman Dersso, the founding director of Amani Africa Media and Research Services, told Al Jazeera’s Inside Story: “We live in a world where individual states [don’t] weigh that much.” For many countries, their ability to achieve political and economic development can only be achieved by coming together and creating a common agenda that they pursue collectively. The African Union “is the largest regional bloc,” Dersso said and, “if it speaks with one voice, its voice weighs strongly in various global platforms.”

With many of the continent’s heavyweights focusing on internal affairs, Cairo might be in a rare position to achieve both its overt and covert agendas. “We’re seeing a lot of African states, particularly the big players like Nigeria, Algeria, and South Africa turning inward. Unless we see more engagement from these big powers, then I think it’s going to be difficult to see the African Union becoming more effective on peace and security,” Elissa Jobson of the International Crisis Group told Al Jazeera.

Over the next year, al-Sisi’s new appointment may allow him to leverage the AU to increase Cairo’s influence on the continent. His AU agenda may also give Egypt a unique opportunity to become an important military and security player in Africa, ultimately allowing Egypt to play a more central role in both African and Middle Eastern politics.