WTO is in system meltdown according to the Egyptian who wants to run the body

Abdel Hamid Mamdouh is one of four African and two Arab candidates shortlisted to lead the World Trade Organisation

Candidate for the Director General of the World Trade Organization Hamid Mamdouh poses on May 28, 2020 in Geneva during an interview with AFP. - "It's time" to have an African at the head of the WTO, for the first time, says Swiss-Egyptian Hamid Mamdouh, who covets the soon-to-be-vacant post of Director-General of the World Trade Organization (WTO). (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)
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Egypt’s nominee for director general of the World Trade Organisation has said the international trade body faces an “existential crisis” the likes of which it had not seen in decades.

Abdel Hamid Mamdouh is one of four African and two Arab candidates in the running to replace the current secretary general, Roberto Azevedo.

Mr Azevedo has said he will step down on August 30, one year before his term was meant to expire, citing family reasons.

Speaking at a webinar hosted by the London-based think tank Chatham House, Mr Mamdouh said the WTO had not been faced with comparable problems since it replaced the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).

“The WTO is facing a stress test that reminds me of the stress test on the GATT when I came to Geneva in [1985], when the reform was necessary,” he said.

Mr Mamdouh explained that the systems within the WTO were now in a state of “complete breakdown” because of “excessive pressure” on its dispute settlement function.

“That was not sustainable, so it failed as well,” he said.

FILE PHOTO: A logo is pictured outside the World Trade Organization (WTO) headquarters next to a red traffic light in Geneva, Switzerland, October 2, 2018. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse/File Photo
The new director-general will take the helm at the World Trade Organisation at a time when it has been saddled with great challenges, including a slump in global trade induced by Covid-19. Reuters

World trade is currently also plagued by myriad external problems. The current global economic crisis, provoked in part by the coronavirus pandemic, has been accompanied by a decline in trade.

US-China trade problems have also proved a serious stumbling block, as well as other cyclical waves of protectionism around the world.

Mr Mamdouh said the WTO needed to join its long-term thinking about these existential crises with fighting the short-term issues it faces.

“We're in the same boat, we also need to ensure that we are all rowing in the same direction. And here, I would start with the political vision. And the political vision for the WTO is one that should serve the entire membership,” he said.

Mr Mamdouh admitted that his candidacy was not typical for trade bureaucrat. He began his career in diplomacy working for the Egyptian embassies in both Ethiopia and Australia before joining Egypt’s ministry of economy and foreign trade.

He joined GATT after serving as Egypt’s trade negotiator to the WTO forerunner, and spent 20 years as an insider at the trade. He now works for a leading law firm in London.

The Egyptian nominee for the WTO’s top post has said it would be his goal to hit the ground running with the body’s 12th ministerial conference, which is scheduled for June 2021.

“I would say that there are two sets of issues that I would have as my priorities. The first is to have a clear vision for a reform agenda and reform process. So we would agree that [the ministerial conference], what do we want to do with this organisation?”

Secondly Mr Mamdouh said there were a number of crucial negotiations, foremost among which was fisheries subsidies negotiations, which needed to be concluded.

“There are ongoing negotiations on eCommerce, investment facilitation, domestic regulation services, small and medium-sized enterprises, trade and women empowerment. We need to register concrete progress on those,” he said.

“We need to, we need to use the next ministerial to move the WTO into positive territory,” Mr Mamdouh added.