Secretary of the Council for Trade in Services, then Senior Adviser in the Services Division and finally Director of the Services and Investment Division… Abdel Hamid Mamdouh spent a total of twenty years in the corridors of the WTO, of which he joined at its inception in 1995.
Today, at the age of 67, this lawyer by training is one of the African candidates vying for the top seat at the organisation following the resignation of Brazilian Roberto Azevêdo.
After Nigeria changed its candidate, settling with its nomination of former Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and Benin opting to withdraw from the race to support the latter, Egypt believes it has been dealt a strong set of cards in this tight race.
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Has the African Union (AU) already decided who it will support?
Abdel Hamid Mamdouh: The African Union launched its selection process when it decided that the next director general of the WTO would be African, at the Niamey summit in July 2019. It was agreed that countries across the continent should present their candidates to the AU by the end of November 2019.
By that deadline, there were three candidates from three countries: Nigeria, Benin and Egypt. We all went to the Addis Ababa summit in February 2020. The AU nominating committee then met, approved the three names and sought the approval of the Ministerial Executive Council, which confirmed them and asked the nominating committee to select one of them. It was then expected that the WTO selection process would begin in December 2020.
But two things have happened in the meantime. First, COVID-19, which led to the cancellation of the African Union summit in Chad in July. And the sudden resignation of the director general of the WTO, causing the selection process to start in June.
Nigeria then took the very unusual step of withdrawing its African Union-backed candidate and presenting a new one [Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala] directly to the WTO without AU approval.
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We need to distinguish between the AU process and the WTO process. The objective of the AU is to achieve a unified African position around a candidate, following its own legal and procedural rules, and implementing the decisions taken by African leaders and the executive council. However, the executive council has instructed the nominating committee to choose one of the three names already approved. Nigeria has been operating outside the AU framework, while everyone has invested time and effort in the same process for almost a year.
What about the AU’s alleged disqualification of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s bid?
This is not an allegation. The legal counsel has issued a legal opinion stating that Nigeria did not follow the agreed procedures. That is all. The deadline for submitting nominations expired last November, it is now too late. The nominating committee has no legal right to accept new nominations.
All the more so since Nigeria had already submitted a candidate, approved by the Ministerial Executive Council. You can act outside this framework, as a member of the WTO, but then don’t say that you have been approved by the AU.
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And don’t pretend to be really concerned about the unity of the African continent. Nigeria and Benin now believe that Egypt should withdraw in favour of the Nigerian candidate in order to preserve African unity. Do you find this logical?
If you don’t get the support of the African Union, are you counting on the support of the Arab world?
I already have the support of the African Union because it has supported three candidates, of which two have withdrawn. So there is now only one candidate supported by the AU: Egypt.
But I also have the support of the Arab countries that are members of the WTO, because I am the only Arab candidate.
How do you organise your campaign? Are you supported by Cairo?
Yes, of course, my country helps me a lot. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is responsible for organising the campaign. I rely on the Egyptian missions to the African Union, in Cairo and Addis Ababa, but also on all our embassies in the capitals of the WTO member countries.
What do you think you can bring to the WTO?
I think the WTO needs a new kind of leadership, one that is based on a deep knowledge of the system and a long-standing relationship and trust with member governments.
Why? Because the necessary reforms of the WTO can only be achieved through negotiations. And the main task of the WTO Director-General is to be the honest broker who builds bridges between members. To play this role, he must have a thorough knowledge of the system and enjoy the confidence of the members.
I am not saying that I am better than the other candidates; I am saying that my profile is different and that it is that of a negotiator. I came to Geneva 35 years ago as a negotiator for Egypt in the GATT, the predecessor of the WTO. So I have 35 years of experience in trade negotiations.
I was part of the team that designed the WTO and was responsible for the legal drafting of the WTO Agreement on Trade in Services and its negotiation. And during my last 17 years with the organisation, I was responsible for trade and investment.
In this campaign, you are presenting yourself as an engineer. What does that mean?
If your car broke down, as the WTO is now, who would you want to have with you? Wouldn’t you want an engineer who was involved in the design and construction of the vehicle to help you make a proper diagnosis? You have to take the car apart, look at the different parts and see what’s wrong. Only an engineer can help you identify possible solutions and repairs, and then help you put the car back together and get it running again.
How can you help African countries develop their trade?
I think African countries, like other developing countries, are lagging behind in this area. Trade is terribly important for the continent. The various countries know this, which is why they have set up the Pan-African Free Trade Area.
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They set it up because they believe in trade and because they believe that trade rules are important. It is only through rules that we can expand. They bring predictability and stability.
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