Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has been sworn in as the African Union’s chairman until January 2020. A new chair is selected annually from among the members of the African Union Assembly of Heads of State and Government, which is the union’s “supreme organ”.
AL-Sisi’s ascent to this powerful position, even if it’s just for 12 months, should concern anyone who is committed to human rights. The legitimacy of his claim to the Egyptian presidency is tenuous: he came to power in 2013 after staging a coup d’état that overthrew President Mohamed Morsi. That’s in contravention of the AU’s own rules; in fact, Egypt was suspended from the AU after the coup.
Then he broke another of the AU’s rules, which states that the instigators of a successful coup cannot contest any further elections. He ran in a presidential election, and won by a huge margin with no real opposition, and a curb on “freedom of expression and association in the run-up to the elections”. At the moment, al-Sisi is pushing for a change in Egypt’s Constitution that will allow him to extend his presidency.
Instead of punishing Egypt and al-Sisi, the AU reinstated the country’s membership. Now, despite the human rights crisis that has unfolded in Egypt on his watch, the AU has elevated al-Sisi to the chairmanship. This shows a flagrant disregard for the torture, detentions and censorship that have become par for the course in Egypt.
It’s also yet another chance for Egypt to present itself to the world as a human rights champion and progressive nation – when in fact its human rights record is precarious, at best.
Human rights record
Despite its poor record at home, Egypt presents the impression globally of being concerned about and engaged with human rights. It has ratified most of the United Nations’ human rights treaties. It is a current member of the UN Human Rights Council and is one of only three states (the two other being Germany and South Africa) with a national serving on both the UN’s Human Rights Committee and the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the two core human rights treaty bodies at the UN level.
Ahmed Fathalla, an Egyptian national, has been member of the UN Human Rights Committee since 2008, and is its current vice chair. In fact, an Egyptian national has been on this Committee – with a brief two-year interruption – since its inception. Another Egyptian national, Mohamed Abdel-Moneim, is the current vice chair of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, on which he has served without interruption since 2005.
Egyptian nationals also serve on the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, and on the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Again, Egyptians have served as members from the inception of these bodies, with only very brief interruptions. No other state has managed to exert such influence through the presence of its nationals on these bodies.
Given its poor domestic record, Egypt’s proximity to the UN’s human rights organs is probably more about self-preservation than about any real interest in human rights. By being embedded in UN – and AU – structures, it’s able to bend the discourse to fit its own agenda. It has for example been one of the states most vocal before the AU policy organs in questioning the Commission’s findings and ways of functioning.
It’s also important to note that despite ratifying most of the UN’s human rights treaties, Egypt doesn’t subscribe to any of the complaints mechanism established under those treaties. That means it can’t be held accountable for human rights violations by its own people before any UN treaty body.
Rendering AU toothless
The AU’s main human rights treaty – the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights ought to pose a much stricter challenge to Egypt, which has ratified the document.
This is so because the African Charter automatically allows for nationals of any participating state to file individual complaints to the African Commission. The fact that Egypt has not accepted the jurisdiction of the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights makes the role of the Commission all the more important. Tellingly, the past few years have seen a flood of complaints from Egyptians to the African Commission who say their rights have been violated.
In response, the Commission has repeatedly called on the Egyptian government to refrain from executing victims of unfair trials, among a number of other grave rights violations. It has also asked Egypt to compensate victims, investigate violations, and bring perpetrators to justice; and even to change its laws.
Egypt has ignored the Commission’s recommendations, and even took the lead in bringing the continental body to reverse its decision to grant observer status to an NGO, the Coalition of African Lesbians (CAL). The observer status granted to CAL by the African Commission was withdrawn in 2018 following intense political pressure from AU members, spearheaded by Egypt.
The AU Executive Council also puts in motion a series of reform that seem intent on further weakening the African Commission. Egypt has repeatedly raised concerns before the African Commission that echo these sentiments. This shows that Egypt is set to undercut the powers of the Commission. Being in a position to influence the AU’s agenda, it is likely to continue to undermine its effectiveness.
Paul Kagame, Idriss Déby and Robert Mugabe being former Heads of the AU demonstrates that the chairmanship does not necessarily go to countries with clean human rights records but rather to countries that have the most influence at the African level.
All eyes should be on al-Sisi’s term as AU chair. His actions and statements while at the helm must be properly scrutinised and Egypt must not be allowed to use its term to further burnish its reputation abroad while the crackdown at home continues.
Ashwanee Budoo, Programme manager of the Master’s in Human Rights and Democratisation in Africa at the Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria and Frans Viljoen, Director and Professor of International Human Rights Law, Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria