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It’s early march in Cairo and a meeting between Abdel Hamid Mamdouh and Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouli’s has wrapped up. As Mamdouh exits Madbouli’s office on 5 March, he breathes a sigh of relief after receiving assurances that his country will put all its weight behind his candidacy for top role of Director-General of the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
The post became vacant following Roberto Azevêdo’s resignation “for family reasons”. The Brazilian will step down on 30 August; one year before his term expires.
1. Abdel Hamid Mamdouh: an unusual profile
The Swiss-Egyptian acknowledges that his professional background is somewhat different from the typical profile of the WTO Director General.
Mamdouh graduated in law from the University of Cairo in 1974. He currently works in Geneva for the American law firm King & Spalding, which he joined in 2017. But prior to that, his career began in diplomacy. During that time, he worked at the Egyptian embassies in both Ethiopia and Australia during the late 1970s and early 1980s.
His time in diplomacy was followed by his work with the economy when he joined the Ministry of Economy and Foreign Trade. There he worked in the branch responsible for bilateral trade relations. In 1985, he was appointed trade negotiator at Egypt’s permanent mission to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).
In 1990, he was hired by the GATT (the forerunner of the WTO), first to provide legal advice and then to assist the Deputy Director-General. “One of my important responsibilities,” says the diplomat, “was the negotiation and drafting of the General Agreement on Trade in Services,” which came into force in 1995, the year the WTO was born.
Secretary of the Council for Trade in Services until 2001, then head of the Services and Investment Division until 2017, the senior international civil servant spent a total of 20 years in the corridors of the WTO before joining Switzerland-based King & Spalding.
Today, the 67-year-old also teaches at the Centre for the Study of Commercial Law at Queen Mary University in London as a visiting professor.
While his path is the one less travelled towards applying for Director-General at the WTO, Mamdouh says he believes in his lucky stars, and is counting on his experience at the GATT and the WTO.
“If you were embarking on a reform process, wouldn’t you prefer to have one of the engineers who helped design and implement the system by your side? What could be better than an “engineer” to fix a broken-down car like the WTO?” he argues.
2. Making nice with Washington
In the midst of the global economic slump caused by COVID-19, several major projects await the future head of the WTO:
- preparing the 2021 ministerial conference
- kick-starting stalling negotiations
- resolving conflicts between the organisation and the United States
On several occasions, US President Donald Trump has indeed denounced the functioning of the institution. “Everyone agrees that reform is necessary,” says Mamdouh, but differences arise when it comes to “setting it to music”.
Since December, member countries can no longer settle their trade disputes through the WTO because Washington has blocked all appointments to its Appellate body, making it ineffective.
3. Mamdouh’s priorities if he gets the job?
Dialogue, bringing members around the same table “to find common ground”, and reviving the legislative arm of the organisation.
Like the other candidates, he has three months now to make himself known to the electors and to engage in discussions on the issues facing the WTO. He will then be expected to make a brief presentation to them, including his vision for the Organisation, before submitting to a question-and-answer session. Mamdouh had planned to embark on a tour of members states across Africa and the Middle East, but with the coronavirus pandemic in full swing, that project has since been thwarted.
The WTO General Council must reach a consensus before a candidate can be nominated.
4. Now is the time for an African
For the Swiss-Egyptian, “it is time” to finally have an African at the head of the WTO. “All other regions of the world have held this position, but never the continent,” said Mamdouh.
“In July 2019, African countries decided that the next director-general of the WTO should come from the continent. It is a strong feeling”. In an interview with the Egyptian newspaper Al-Youm Al-Sabea, he said other member countries also agree that the post should be filled by a representative of the continent.
In addition to Mamdouh, other African candidates are in the running. They include Nigeria‘s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Benin‘s Eloi Laourou and Kenya’s Amina Mohamed, who already ran for the same position in 2012. They have between 8 June to 8 July to officially present their candidacy.
5. African (dis)unity
While many say now is the time for Africa to seize the top position of the WTO, thereby seeing both the WHO and the World Trade Organisation led by an African, disunity amongst the candidates’ countries could be an impediment.
A sudden change in the nomination of Nigeria’s candidate from Yonov Frederick Agah, to Okonjo-Iweala did not bode well for Egypt.
The Egyptian government immediately hit back by publishing a communiqué on 5 June 2020 to the Permanent Missions of the WTO Member States of the Ministerial Committee on Candidatures stating that Abuja’s decision to withdraw Agah’s candidature meant Nigeria had forfeited its chance to participate in the race.
While this is a chance for the WTO to be headed by an African, it remains to be seen whether member states across Africa will agree on a single candidate. Such disunity or fierce competition could very well work against not only the individual candidates, but the chance for an African to finally lead the organisation.
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