NOT BACKING DOWN: Members of the Muslim Brotherhood and supporters of ousted Egyptian president Mohamed Mursi shouts slogans at Raba El-Adwyia mosque square in Cairo on Thursday. The leader of the Muslim Brotherhood was arrested by Egyptian security forces on Thursday. Picture: REUTERS
NOT BACKING DOWN: Members of the Muslim Brotherhood and supporters of ousted Egyptian president Mohamed Mursi shouts slogans at Raba El-Adwyia mosque square in Cairo on Thursday. The leader of the Muslim Brotherhood was arrested by Egyptian security forces on Thursday. Picture: REUTERS

SOUTH Africa and the African Union (AU) will decide on Friday whether to follow their own rules, by suspending Egypt’s AU membership after the army toppled the elected president, or make an exception to avert even greater instability.

"We are co-ordinating with other African states and we will have a briefing with (President Jacob) Zuma," a senior official in Pretoria said on Thursday. The AU’s Peace and Security Council will meet at its headquarters in Addis Ababa on Friday to decide whether to suspend Egypt from the continental organisation.

Egypt is one of the AU’s five main funders and was a founding member of its predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity, back in 1963.

After huge antigovernment rallies across Egypt, the army stepped in on Wednesday night, overthrowing and detaining President Moham ed Mursi. Chief Justice Adli Mansour was sworn in as interim president on Thursday.

Security forces also began rounding up Mr Mursi’s top aides and members of the Muslim Brotherhood movement to which he belongs, sources said in Cairo.

"In line with the African Union Constitutive Act, South Africa is opposed to all forms of unconstitutional changes of government," the Department of International Relations and Co-operation said on Thursday.

It stopped short of commenting on AU rules, which state that countries whose legitimate governments are overthrown will be suspended from the 54-nation body.

If the AU’s 15-member Peace and Security Council concludes that events in Cairo amount to an unconstitutional change of government, Egypt’s membership of the AU will be suspended until democratic governance is restored.

"Technically speaking, there is no doubt that this is a coup against an elected government, so, by definition, if the AU is going to apply its rules, the next course of action would be the suspension of Egypt," said Solomon Dersso, senior researcher with the Institute for Security Studies in Addis Ababa.

"But the rules are not applied in a consistent way — there is always politics," he said.

That was clear when the US refrained from describing the army’s intervention as a coup. To have done so would have jeopardised US military and other aid to Egypt, a crucial and loyal American ally in the Middle East.

South Africa’s cautious reaction showed it was fully aware of the risks if instability in Egypt worsened and spread to other countries in North Africa and the Middle East.

The Central African Republic was the member most recently suspended from the AU following the overthrow of Francois Bozizé by the Seleka rebel coalition in March. Madagascar, whose president, Marc Ravalomanana, was driven from office in January 2009, and Guinea-Bissau, which underwent a coup in April last year, are also suspended.

Mali was readmitted to the AU in October last year after a plan for elections and a return to law and order was adopted. Its membership had been temporarily revoked after a military coup.

But none of those countries is of Egypt’s strategic importance.

Western diplomatic sources in Addis Ababa said the case was not straightforward. "In theory it is (a coup) but in practice that has to be decided by the AU Peace and Security Council," a diplomat said.

Egypt was not suspended from the AU when Hosni Mubarak was overthrown by a popular uprising in January 2011, but some experts believe the army’s direct involvement this time leaves the AU with little room for manoeuvre.

"If the past is anything to go by, there will be no other way than for the AU to call it a coup and suspend Egypt," Mr Dersso said.

The Department of International Relations and Co-operation urged South Africans in Egypt or intending to travel there to review their plans.

"Nonessential personnel and families attached to the South African embassy in Cairo will be temporarily withdrawn until the situation allows for their return. The embassy will, however, remain open and continue rendering consular assistance to South African citizens in Egypt."