The nature and legitimacy of the removal of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi is hotly contested: is it a military coup, a popular democratic uprising, or some hybrid of the two? Morsi had won few friends internationally for his clumsy handling of the country during his twelve months in power, and there was no doubt that the demonstrations against his growing arbitrariness reflected a very strong and popular current in Egyptian politics. But the Muslim Brothers did win the 2012 elections—the first in Egypt’s history—fairly, and a year of misrule will not have eliminated their support base. The prospect of deep internal divisions, possibly violent, looms. The fears of a civil war, as followed the Algerian military’s cancellation of the 1988 elections in which the Islamists won power, are real. However, the international response has been directionless.
The one international organization that has responded in a principled, decisive and prompt manner is the African Union, which suspended Egypt on July 4. The reason for this was that the Constitutive Act of the AU prohibits any member state, in which there is an unconstitutional transfer of power, from participating in the activities of the Union. This provision was born in 1997 as a measure to prohibit military coups, or more precisely, a measure to try to ostracize putchists and compel them to hand over power to elected governments as soon as possible. With the drafting of the AU’s Constitutive Act in 2000, the measure was expanded to all unconstitutional means of taking power.
The best examples of the AU’s principle in action have been when it has acted swiftly to condemn military takeovers and to initiate transitions to democracy. Last year, when President Bingu wa Mutharika of Malawi died, the AU forcefully insisted that the constitution was honored and Vice President Joyce Banda succeed to the Presidency, instead of the choice of the ruling party which was that the late President’s brother, Peter Mutharika taking over. Similarly, it immediately condemned the coup in Mali and demanded that a civilian government be installed to pave the way for democratic elections.
The AU has struggled more with how to apply the principle to democratic uprisings. In the early days of the Arab Spring, the Peace and Security Council debated how to apply the principle to the overthrow of dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, and decided that the principle of constitutionalism should be interpreted in favor of democracy rather than to buttress the status quo. In the case of Libya, the AU regarded the conflict as a civil war demanding mediation rather than a democratic uprising requiring regime change.
In the case of Egypt last week, the suspension was invoked automatically. Senior AU officials did not express strong views. That’s how a principle should operate.
Africa is divided on the democratic credentials of the overthrow of Morsi. The Muslim Brothers had won themselves few friends in Africa with their clumsy handling of their electoral mandate and their divisive policies, culminating in Egyptian belligerence over the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Nile last month. However, Africans do not show much appetite for the military stepping in. The strong preference was for the non-violent tactics of the demonstrators to contest against the government, with the army staying out of politics, ensuring that neither side could resort to violence. The coup, although initially bloodless, is an act of violence against the constitutional order.
The African Union does not have much clout in Egypt: it won’t be able to exert the kind of peer pressure or suasion that it can do in the case of Malawi or Mali. However, the suspension of Egypt does impose a cost on that country. Egypt is currently a member of the Peace and Security Council and has been using that position to exert influence, including in key policies such as Sudan and South Sudan and over the Nile waters. But most important, the AU has taken a stand on principle, making it clear that its principles apply to the biggest and most powerful of its states, as much as to the smaller ones.
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