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Egypt's president takes chair of African Union

February 10, 2019

After being suspended from the African Union in 2013, Egypt is seeking to enhance its standing in Africa. Egypt's focus is on security, trade and migration.

The November 2018 African Union assembly meeting in Addis Ababa
Image: Getty Images/AFP/M. Tewelde

Egypt's President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi took up his chairmanship of the 55-member African Union (AU) at its 32nd ordinary session in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on Sunday.  

During his tenure, el-Sissi is expected to concentrate on security and financial reform, but with no great plans to strengthen the AU's multilateral powers.

Instead, the focus is expected to be on combating illegal immigration while Egypt presents itself as a model for hosting refugees.

The summit has been titled: "Refugees, Returnees and Internally Displaced Persons" presented within a security context.

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-SissiImage: Getty Images/A. Berry

Ahead of the summit, el-Sissi set out his priorities for the year:

  • Building bridges in support of African cultural events.
  • Cooperating with partners regionally and internationally.
  • Peace and security, with a focus on post-conflict reconstruction.
  • Institutional and financial reform of the AU.
  • Expediting the CFTA free trade agreement and infrastructure projects.
  • Providing employment opportunities, increasing the return of African youth, developing manufacturing, agriculture and fishing.

Free trade

The Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA) was approved by 44 of 55 member states last March. If ratified, it would become the largest free trade area since the World Trade Organization was set up in 1995.

The CFTA would see tariffs removed from 90 percent of goods and could boost trade within the continent by 52 percent within three years, according to the UN.

The free trade area will come into effect once ratified by 22 of the signatory states. As of February, 19 states had ratified the agreement.

Nigeria is one of the continent's economic powerhouses staying outside the CFTA, with President Muhammadu Buhari concerned it may hurt Nigerian entrepreneurship and industry.

Human rights concerns

Rights groups, including Amnesty International, have expressed concern that Egypt's chairmanship may undermine the AU's human rights mechanisms.

Read more: Emmanuel Macron pushes for human rights in Egypt

"During his time in power President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has demonstrated a shocking contempt for human rights. Under his leadership the country has undergone a catastrophic decline in rights and freedoms," said Najia Bounaim, Amnesty's North Africa Campaigns director.

"There are real fears about the potential impact his chairmanship could have on the independence of regional human rights mechanisms and their future engagement with civil society," she said. "The African Union member states must ensure that Egypt, as political head of the organization for 2019, upholds the African Union's values and principles, including respect for human and peoples' rights."

jm/aw (AP, AFP)

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