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INTERVIEW: Abdel Hamid Mamdouh, the first Egyptian in the running to lead the World Trade Organization

Ahram Online interviews Abdel Hamid Mamdouh, a veteran trade expert in the running to become director-general of the World Trade Organization

Zeinab El-Gundy , Thursday 9 Jul 2020
Egyptian candidate Abdel Hamid Mamdouh
Abdel Hamid Mamdouh, the Egyptian candidate to head the WTO (Photo: Reuters)
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For an outsider, the decision to run for the position as head of the World Trade Organization is not an easy one at present.

Current Director-General Roberto Azevêdo announced in May that he would step down from his position in August, just a year before his second term ends.

He leaves the WTO grappling with many challenges: the coronavirus pandemic and its economic repercussions, the trade conflict between the US and China, and, last but not least, the WTO itself and whether it is still needed now.

“I am running because I truly believe in the system,” Abdel Hamid Mamdouh, the Egyptian candidate for the job, told Ahram Online in a lengthy phone interview.

“I believe in the values that the system stands for, the values of non-discrimination, rules-based trading relations and the strategic importance of trade itself as an engine for trade and economic development in general and especially for the development of countries,” said Mamdouh.

An international trade expert with 35 years’ experience, including years inside the WTO, and even at its predecessor, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), Mamdouh says his first priority if he gets the job will be taking a look at the institution itself.

“The number one priority is going to be the reforms in WTO, but we need first to understand what those reforms like because reforming the WTO is not like any other international, not like the World Bank or the IMF or WHO; it is not about how you are looking through the organisation source and programme; in the WTO it is about reforming the treaty,” he said, referring to the WTO agreement itself.

The WTO treaty can be reformed only through negotiations, as it is a contract between the sovereign state members, says the veteran trade expert.

“There are two types of problems facing the WTO treaty; some problems related to compliances with the existing obligations of the treaty, and other problems related to updating the rules in the treaty,” he said.

“We must bring all members of the WTO, including the US, China and the EU -- as well as developing countries -- to look at the challenges that are facing the organisation and start a discussion to remind them that the WTO is not an objective itself but rather to serve a propose, which is to provide the stability and predictability in trade relations.”

“You start from where everybody agrees, and so we all agree that this is the purpose of the system,” he added.

For Mamdouh, the role of director-general is commonly misunderstood; he says it is not the typical executive role.

“The director-general of the WTO should be an honest broker, a bridge builder, a mediator and a facilitator between members to help them solve the problems and help them administer the system in a way that that serves the purpose,” he said.

“I have been in the system for 35 years; I was one of those engineers who designed the system,” he added.

Mamdouh’s career in trade diplomacy started when he joined the Egyptian foreign ministry’s trade diplomatic service in in 1976. In 1986, he was among Egypt’s negotiators into the GATT in the Uruguay round.

He joined GATT as a legal adviser in 1990, and one year later he was lead Secretariat official on the drafting of the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS).

He tells Ahram Online that that is part of what makes him stand out – his experience.

Steep challenges: The US and China

Among the key hot button issues awaiting the attention of the new director-general is the tension between China and the US over trade, which has led to threats from the US that it will leave the WTO.

“We need first to realise that the tension between China and the US is not just trade tension; it fits into a much broader geopolitical context, which means the second step is to try and to make the distinction and try to deal with the trade part,” Mamdouh told Ahram Online, adding that trade conflict between the two countries won’t resolve other aspects of the tension between them.

According to the WTO veteran, both global powers claim that the other is not complying with their trade obligations, and there are mechanisms within the WTO to check if the member state is or is not complying, and to ensure that obligations are enforced.

“Another part of the trade tension between the US and China relates to the subsidies, the significant role the Chinese government plays in the economy and the fact that there aren't enough rules in the system to discipline state-owned enterprises and ensure that they are operating on a level playing field with private sector companies or international competitors,” he explained.

Again, the solution to this complex issue, which has many political ramifications, comes through negotiations and deep discussions.

“This is why I was saying in the beginning, you have to start with recalling and reaffirming that common purpose. Why are we here? Because if you don't want to negotiate, nobody can force you. But you have to be clear about what you want and why we are here in the WTO,” he added.

The role of the head of the body, he said, is to bring people together, “but also to have the authoritative knowledge to analyse the problems and suggest options for solutions, and to help them through structuring the negotiating processes and even help them structure the legal forms of outcomes for these negotiations,” he said.

Coronavirus and the WTO

Without a doubt, the coronavirus has had a huge impact on the global economy and on international trade, especially as it is unclear when the pandemic will draw to a close.

The economic repercussions have begun to be felt in both the global supply chain and in terms of global demand.

In the context of such a crisis, the WTO has both a short-term and a long-term role, the Egyptian-Swiss trade negotiator said.

The WTO’s rules allow countries to impose exceptional conditions, such as restricting exports in certain emergency situations, he said.

“So the role of the WTO is to make sure that its member states’ export restrictions conform with those rules. They must ensure that those measures will be transparent and the WTO will be notified,” he said.

In the long run, once the coronavirus crisis is over, there will be a need for global economic recovery and the WTO will have a role.

“A very strong WTO will be needed to provide the stability and predictability in trade, because stability and predictability allow trade to grow and trading opportunities to expand, and therefore generate economic growth, development, job creation and rising incomes.”

“Once again, major reforms in the WTO are going to be critical for most of the coronavirus economic recovery,” he said.

African competition for the job

Mamdouh is not the only African national running for the post for the first time; he has competition from Nigeria that has caused some controversy within the African Union.

In February, candidates from Egypt – Mamdouh himself -- Nigeria and Benin were short-listed by the AU, one of which will be endorsed.

In surprise move in June, Nigeria withdrew its nominee Yunov Frederick Agah, who previously served as deputy director-general of the WTO, and replaced him with former finance minister Ngosi Okonjo-Iweale. At the same time, Benin also withdrew its candidate.

Egypt asked the AU to offer a legal opinion on whether the candidacy conforms with the AU Executive Council’s rules.

In June, the AU’s Office of the Legal Counsel said Nigeria’s withdrawal of the first candidate and replacement with another was not in line with the bloc's nomination rules.

Nigeria withdrew its candidate and nominated the other on 4 June, well past the deadline of 30 November 2019, the office said. It informed the bloc about the candidacy in a note verbale, while rules stipulate that the AU should acknowledge receipt containing the date and the stamp of submission.

The candidates were already shortlisted in February and their names were submitted to the Executive Council for the endorsement of a single nominee.

“Candidatures shall be submitted to the [AU] commission at least two months prior to the sessions of the Executive Council, which shall consider them,” the Office of the Legal Counsel said.

Candidates can only be accepted after the deadlines if no other candidates have been submitted for a position, the submission has been closed, or if there are more vacancies for Africans than submissions received, according to the AU’s rules.

Accordingly, Mamdouh is the official and only candidate supported by the African Union.

“If you really are concerned with African unity then you must have respect for the rules, procedures and ministerial councils and decisions of the African Union,” he told Ahram Online, adding that Nigeria is a sovereign country that can follow the WTO process and present its own candidate.

Mamdouh is facing competition from Ngosi Okonjo-Iweale from Nigeria, Jesús Seade Kuri from Mexico, Tudor Ulianovschi from Moldova and Yoo Myung-hee from South Korea.

Compared to them, the Egyptian-Swiss lawyer and WTO veteran does not have an official ministerial or political position.  

“Being an ex-minister is not a requirement; we have had ex-ministers as directors, except for the current one, and people have been complaining about the performance of the organisation all along,” he said.

According to Mamdouh, the problem is that there is not enough understanding of the nature of the director-general job, and there is an impression that ministers would have more access to the political leaders, and so on.

“Actually, if you are director-general, you will have access to the White House, you will have access to the commission in Brussels, you will have access to any trade minister around the globe, but the problem is not having access, but rather, when you have access, what do you do with it? What kind of conversation are you going to have with political leaders? How are you going to be persuasive?” he said.

“I have established that over the past 35 years, I've been giving impartial advice to governments and private sector companies and so forth. So, what I'm putting forward is a different profile.”

For Mamdouh, there are desirable criteria and there are essential criteria for the leadership role.

“We don't have the luxury now to go for the desirable and sacrifice the essential -- the need is for an honest broker,” he said.

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