Egypt's Sisi takes over as new head of African Union

He was appointed chair of the pan-African body as Rwandan President Paul Kagame steps aside

Photo: EPA President of Egypt and newly-elected African Union Chairperson Abdel Fattah al-Sisi speaks during the 32nd African Union Summit in Addis Ababa

Egypt's President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has been elected chairman of the African Union (AU) on Sunday following a meeting by heads of state from the continent in Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa. Sisi takes the helm from Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who focused on creating an Africa wide free-trade zone during his tenure.

In a speech the Egyptian leader said he will focus on the fight against armed groups on the continent and rebuilding efforts of countries recovering from conflict.

"Terrorism remains a cancer that affects African nations and steals the dreams of our people and we must identify and combat those who fund terrorism activities on the continent," Sisi said after his appointment, adding that under Egypt's leadership the bloc will also prioritise mediation and "preventive diplomacy" as one of the key mechanisms for promoting peace and security on the continent.

Yet, Sisi’s chairmanship was welcomed with harsh criticism by the rights group Amnesty International that warned Sisi might undermine the African Union’s human rights mechanisms.

“During his time in power President Abdel Fattah el 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.”

The rights group also stressed that Egypt since 2015 has orchestrated a sustained political attack against the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the body that aims to monitor African states’ human rights records. “Dozens of cases alleging serious human rights violations have been lodged against Egypt at the ACHPR,” it said.

Furthermore, the appointment comes amid a frosty relationship between Cairo and the 55-member African Union. This was caused mainly because of the fact that Egypt was kicked out of the pan-African body in 2013 following a Sisi-led military coup. The coup resulted in the overthrew of the country's democratically elected leader, Mohamed Morsi, and brought Sisi to power. The bloc, however, later lifted Egypt's suspension.

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