Seeking influence, Egypt’s El-Sisi to chair African Union

In this file photo taken on December 8, 2017, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (C), Guinea's President and African Union (AU) chairman Alpha Conde (L) and Rwandan President Paul Kagame (R) attend the opening session of the Africa 2017 Forum in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. (AFP / KHALED DESOUKI)
Updated 09 February 2019

Seeking influence, Egypt’s El-Sisi to chair African Union

  • Cairo’s tenure will probably concentrate on security and peacekeeping.
  • El-Sisi will take over the post from Rwandan President Paul Kagame

CAIRO: Nearly six years after the African Union (AU) shut it out in the cold, Egypt will take the organization’s helm — and strengthening multilateral powers is unlikely to be on the agenda.

Cairo’s tenure “will probably concentrate on security and peacekeeping,” said Ashraf Swelam, who heads a think tank linked to the country’s Foreign Ministry.

Incoming AU chair President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi will likely focus less on “financial and administrative reform” than his predecessor, Swelam added.

Such reform was the cornerstone of outgoing AU chairman Paul Kagame’s year in the role.

The Rwandan president has pushed for a continent-wide import tax to fund the AU and reduce its dependence on external donors, who still pay for more than half the institution’s annual budget.

The near year-long lock out from the AU came after Egypt’s army deposed President Muhammad Mursi, who in 2012 had become the country’s first democratically elected president.

El-Sisi is due to take the helm at the AU’s biannual heads of state assembly, which takes place on Feb. 10 and 11 at the AU’s gleaming headquarters in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa.

As usual, the continent’s multiple security crises will be high on the VIPs’ agenda.

The single market is a flagship of the AU’s “Agenda 2063” program, conceived as a strategic framework for socioeconomic transformation. However, the trade pact has met resistance from South Africa.

El-Sisi will therefore need to push hard for ratification of this accord, if it is to come into effect. Rwanda’s ambitious funding proposal will also likely be on the table.

But it has met resistance not only from Egypt, but other member states, so may fail to pass.

Reform of the AU Commission is an even more sensitive topic. In November 2018, most states rejected a proposal to give the head of the AU’s executive organ the power to name deputies and commissioners.

But the Egyptians are “fully engaged” in pushing other AU reforms, according to an AU official.

One key initiative backed by Cairo is the Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA), an initiative agreed by 44 of 55 member states in March 2018.

For Elissa Jobson, head of Africa advocacy at the International Crisis Group, El-Sisi can be expected to “use the presidency to increase his country’s standing among other African states.”

“This is not a departure from previous administrations,” particularly that of the outgoing chairman, she added.

“Kagame showed that the presidency — for a long time considered to be merely a figurehead — can be used to promote national interests and boost a leader’s international profile,” Jobson said.

The AU official — who requested anonymity — said Rwanda’s president will remain a point person for the organization’s broad reform agenda, despite handing over the chair.

But there are major limits to the power wielded by the post of AU chairman.

Kagame suffered a crushing disavowal by the AU after expressing “serious doubts” about the results of Democratic Republic of Congo’s recent presidential election, which was officially won by Felix Tshisekedi.

While also disputed by the Catholic church, the results were validated by DRC’s constitutional court and saluted by continental heavyweights South Africa, Kenya and Egypt.

For Liesl Louw-Vaudran at the Institute of Security Studies, El-Sisi wants Egypt to be considered part of Africa, not just the Arab world — but that will require work.

“North African countries have a reputation of looking in a different direction than Africa, and Egypt will have to overcome that stereotype,” she said.

The AU’s theme for this summit is “Refugees, Returnees and Internally Displaced Persons” presented within a security context.

Cairo is casting itself as a champion in the battle against illegal immigration — and as a model for hosting refugees on its soil.


Turkish, Iranian media outlets exchange blows on Syria

A Syrian woman carrying a child walks by, in the Washukanni Camp for the internally displaced, near the predominantly Kurdish city of Hasakeh in northeastern Syria, on February 17, 2020. (AFP)
Updated 19 February 2020

Turkish, Iranian media outlets exchange blows on Syria

  • Middle East expert believes Ankara and Tehran are locked in an information war

ANKARA: Turkish and Iranian media outlets are battling as deeply rooted tensions have resurfaced. Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency has published an opinion piece that critically discussed tensions with Iran over Syria. It said: “Turkey’s vision of regional development and integration is pitched against Iran’s regional strategy prioritising geopolitical wins.
“Ignoring Ankara’s concerns in the fight against terrorism during Operation Peace Spring, Tehran is now setting its Shiite militias in the field in motion against Turkey, who is actively endeavoring to prevent a humanitarian crisis.”
The analysis piece, titled “Idlib front, Iran’s weakening foreign operation capacity,” was penned by Hadi Khodabandeh Loui, a researcher at the Iran Research Center in Ankara.
Throughout Syria’s civil war, Turkey has backed rebels looking to oust Bashar Assad, while Iran has supported the Assad regime. However, the two countries are collaborating to reach a political solution to the conflict.
An editorial piece that was published in Iran’s hardline newspaper Entekhab compared Turkey’s military moves in Syria to Israel’s bombings of pro-Assad forces. The piece warned Ankara about a potential aggressive reaction from Tehran to both threats.
Israeli warplanes fired missiles at targets near Syria’s capital, Damascus, in early February and they hit Syrian Army and Iran-backed militia positions, reportedly killing 23 people.
Being among the guarantor states of the Astana peace process for Syria, aimed at ending the Syrian conflict, Turkey and Iran have already witnessed the fragility of their relations in October 2019 when Iran criticized Turkey’s moves to establish military posts inside Syria, emphasizing the need to respect the integrity of Syria.
Then, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan quickly accused Iran of betraying the consensus between the two countries following Tehran’s condemnation of Turkey’s operation in northern Syria against the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia.

BACKGROUND

Throughout Syria’s civil war, Turkey has backed rebels looking to oust Bashar Assad, while Iran has supported the Assad regime. However, the two countries are collaborating to reach a political solution to the conflict.

In March 2018, Iran’s Tehran Times defined Turkey’s cross-border military operation against the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia in Afrin as an “invasion.” It splashed with a headline that read: “Turkish troops occupy Syria’s Afrin.”
Over recent weeks, Ankara has voiced criticisms that the Assad regime, Iran-backed militia and Russia have violated the ceasefire in Syria’s rebel-held province of Idlib, with frequent attacks targeting Turkish troops.
Samuel Ramani, a Middle East analyst at the University of Oxford, thinks that Assad’s forces are winning decisively, and Turkey’s ability to resist them is greatly diminished.
“Assad’s forces have consolidated their control over west Aleppo, and are steadily advancing in Idlib. Turkey does not view the Iranian mediation offers in Syria as credible, especially as Iranian media outlets are justifying them by claiming that Turkey broke the terms of the Sochi agreement by harboring extremists. Turkey is insistent that Russia violated Sochi by supporting Assad’s offensive,” he told Arab News.
Regarding the media conflict, Ramani thinks that Turkey and Iran are locked in an information war over Syria, and are both trying to paint the other as an aggressor.
“It’s a way to rally public support in both countries around more confrontational posturing, in the event of a bigger military escalation that actually sees Turkish and Iranian forces in direct combat, not just Assad and Turkish proxies,” he said.