Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Constitutional Changes in the Making to Seal Autocracy in Egypt

Egypt- Egyptian parliament
Egypt’s Parliament Speaker Ali Abdel-Aal (R) chairs a parliament plenary session to deliberate the proposed constitutional amendments to increase office term durations for the country’s president from four to six years, in the capital Cairo on February 14, 2019. Photo AFP

In a move analysts and activists have expected for at least a year, Egypt’s parliament initially approved draft amendments to the constitution in February 2019, granting President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi sweeping powers and allowing him to stay in power until 2034.

The parliament’s legislative committee will discuss the amendments, and potentially revise them, before a final vote expected in late March or April. The amendments will then be subject to a referendum, which could happen before the start of Ramadan in the first week of May.

The most notable change is to the presidential term limit, increasing it from two four-year terms to two six-year terms. This would allow al-Sisi to run for two more terms after his current one ends in 2022, which could keep him in power until 2034.

Lawmakers who proposed the changes argue that these are necessary for the stability of the country and to allow al-Sisi to complete several development projects, such as the new administrative capital east of Cairo.

Moreover, the changes would grant the president the power to appoint judges for Egypt’s highest courts and select the prosecutor general. Several Egyptian human rights NGOs said in a statement that these measures would ‘eliminate all remnants of judicial independence’.

A senior judicial official told local news outlet Mada Masr that the changes would make the constitution “one for military dictatorships”.

Courts have proven to be one of the last spaces where al-Sisi’s power can be more or less challenged. In 2016 and 2017, lawyers managed to frustrate Egypt’s transfer of the Red Sea islands Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia in the Supreme Administrative Court for well over a year.

The amendments would also abolish the State Council’s authority to review contracts in which the state or one of its subsidiaries is a stakeholder. This article is peculiar in light of the recent expansion of Egypt’s military involvement in the economy through numerous military-owned companies that sign contracts with (international) private companies.

Another major change in the constitution concerns Egypt’s armed forces, granting them responsibilities beyond merely protecting the country’s borders and maintaining security. If approved, the army’s role would include ‘preserving democracy and the constitution, protecting the basic principles of the state and its civilian nature, and protecting people’s rights and individual freedoms’.

Commentators fear that this would allow the military to intervene in political affairs, to the extent of cancelling election results.

The amended articles concerning the army would constitutionalize what has been happening in the country since the army deposed Islamist President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013. The army’s political role has increased since, in the first instance by the election of al-Sisi, a general, as president. In addition, numerous senior or retired army leaders have been appointed as ministers or governors over the past years, and military spending appears to have increased significantly.

Moreover, parliament approved a new law in July 2018 under which the president can protect military officers from being prosecuted for crimes committed between July 2013 and January 2016. The law effectively shields commanders responsible for the violent crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in this period, for instance the Rabaa dispersal in August 2013 that left approximately 1,000 people dead, from being held accountable.

Further, army companies, either under the umbrella of the Ministry of Defence or the Ministry of Military Production, are increasingly involved in economic activities. One source in the energy field told Fanack that basically every new project developed by foreign companies in Egypt has to go through the army. The armed forces engineering authority has been granted leading roles in mega infrastructure projects, such as the extension of the Suez Canal and the building of the new capital.

A final change in the constitution would be the reinstatement of the Shura Council, the government’s Upper House. One third of this body would be appointed directly by the president.

Pro-government forces have already started to rally support for the changes. A campaign led by thousands of NGOs says it aims to raise awareness among the people about the ‘necessity of constitutional amendments’ for Egypt’s stability and for building a ‘modern state’.

What is left of the opposition is trying to mobilize against the amendments. Former presidential candidate and veteran politician Hamdeen Sabahi announced in early February a coalition of 11 political parties and several political figures and MPs.

“We will challenge the proposed amendments before the country’s Supreme Constitutional Court,” former Dostour Party leader Khaled Dawoud told AP.

A lawyer who opposes the amendments told Fanack on condition of anonymity that he does not expect this coalition to be able to stop the changes, but that it is nevertheless important to keep putting pressure on the regime. He believes many people could vote no in the referendum, which would force the regime to manipulate the result.

“People will realize this, which will fuel discontent that could accumulate to renewed protests, like the allegedly fraudulent parliamentary elections in 2010 were a pretext for the 25 January Revolution,” he said.

Discontent over the country’s leadership is hardly expressed in public but seems to vibrate just beneath the surface. After a train crash in Cairo on 27 February that killed 22 people, the hashtag ‘We are returning to Tahrir’ began trending on Twitter.

In an apparent bid to silence possible opposition to the constitutional amendments, Egypt has rounded up dozens of prominent political figures and activists over the past months. Four Dostour Party members were arrested in late February, two of whom had expressed opposition to the constitutional changes on social media. The state seems determined to push through the amendments and ensure opposition will not be able to mobilize against it.

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