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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4 Responses to The African Union’s Principled Stand on Egypt

  1. Costantinos says:

    In the preamble of the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, it states that the Charter is inspired by the principles enshrined in the Constitutive Act of the African Union, which emphasize the significance of good governance, popular participation, rule of law and human rights. It further goes on to reaffirming the collective will to work relentlessly to deepen and consolidate the rule of law, peace, security and development in our countries; guided by a common mission to strengthen and consolidate institutions for good governance and committed to promote the universal values and principles of democracy, good governance, human rights and the right to development. (Articles 3 and 4)
    Cognizant of the historical and cultural conditions in Africa; it seeks to entrench a political culture of change of power based on the holding of regular, free, fair and transparent elections conducted by competent, independent and impartial national electoral bodies. Concerned about the unconstitutional changes of governments that are one of the essential causes of insecurity, instability and violent conflict in Africa; it is determined to promote and strengthen good governance through the institutionalization of transparency, accountability and participatory democracy. Convinced of the need to enhance the election observation missions in the role they play, particularly as they are an important contributory factor to ensuring the regularity, transparency and credibility of elections, it is desirous to enhance the relevant Declarations and Decisions of the OAU/AU.
    The objectives of the Charter are to promote adherence, by each State Party, to the universal values and principles of democracy, respect for human rights, the rule of law premised upon the respect for, and the supremacy of, the Constitution and holding of regular free and fair elections and institutionalize legitimate authority of representative governments. Further, it is to prohibit, reject and condemn unconstitutional change of government in any Member State as a serious threat to stability, peace, security and development and promote the establishment of the necessary conditions to foster citizen participation, transparency, access to information, freedom of the press and accountability in public affairs.
    Hence, the principled stand by the African Union must be respected by all forces that have significant clout on Egypt including the Arab League and the United States that has refused to acknowledge the coup that removed Mursi.

  2. nkulumani says:

    Thank you very much for condemning the coup although you seem not to want to call it a coup preferring to justify why MORSI WAS OVERTHROWN. I would have preferred you to hit hard on the so called international community’s failure to call this a coup

  3. […] Constitutive Act, such as suspending governments that come to power through unconstitutional means. In July that provision was applied to suspend Egypt: a decision that, controversial at the time, has appeared more and more appropriate as the weeks […]

  4. […] Act, such as suspending governments that come to power through unconstitutional means. In July that provision was applied to suspend Egypt: a decision that, controversial at the time, has appeared more and more appropriate as the weeks […]

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