Campaign to amend presidential term limits polarises Egypt

The campaign to change the constitution is banking on fears that a post-Sisi Egypt could lead to the return of Islamists to power.
Sunday 16/09/2018
An Egyptian man holds a poster of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi near the presidential palace in Cairo.  (Reuters)
A shield against Islamists. An Egyptian man holds a poster of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi near the presidential palace in Cairo. (Reuters)

CAIRO - Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s second — and constitutionally final — term in office is to end in June 2022. Nevertheless, some people, including most of the nation’s lawmakers, are looking to find ways to allow the president to stay in office longer.

One of the suggestions is to amend the constitution, which imposes a limit of two 4-year terms on the presidency. Pace has been growing to increase the presidential term in office beyond the current length of four years.

“The president needs more time in the presidency to complete what he started: the economic development of this country,” said MP Ismail Nasreddine, a member of Egypt’s lower house of parliament. “Four years are far from enough for him to do this.”

Nasreddine and other parliamentarians want to amend Article 140 of the constitution, which reads: “The President of the Republic is elected for a period of four calendar years, commencing on the day the term of his predecessor ends. The President may only be re-elected once.”

Nasreddine and some of his colleagues have been campaigning for a constitutional amendment over the presidency for years but the pace has increased since Sisi secured his second term this year.

The campaign to change the constitution, which has seeped out of the halls of parliament and onto television screens and social media, is banking on fears that a post-Sisi Egypt could lead to the return of Islamists to power.

Sisi, who was the armed forces chief of staff before becoming president, has been at the centre of a national campaign to rid Egypt of Islamist groups, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood. The campaign has had far-reaching repercussions on the political future of Islamists and political systems in the region, given Egypt’s central role in the Middle East and North Africa.

Sisi has been behind a painful but much-needed economic reform process that many hope will guarantee Egypt’s future. Government moves include liberalisation of the exchange rate of the national currency, the slashing of subsidies and the imposition of more taxes. Economists say the reforms are working with foreign currency reserves in the Central Bank rising, the tourism sector back on track, exports growing and imports falling.

“All these achievements make the majority of the people want him to have more time in the presidency until our country arrives at safe shores,” said Tharwat Bekheit, another member of the parliament. “This is not about Sisi but about the interests of our country.”

Nasreddine and other lawmakers submitted a proposal to lengthen the presidential term to six years before the presidential election in March. Discussion on changing the constitution was postponed until after the election but now pressure is increasing for parliament to formally discuss the issue.

Bekheit said he expected debates on the constitution to begin after parliament returns from recess in October. If a majority of parliament members approve an amendment to Article 140 of the constitution, the change would be put before the Egyptian people for a vote.

Last November, Sisi told US business news television CNBC that he preferred an amendment of the constitution not to be made during his time in office. He added that he had no plans to seek a third term in office.

Nevertheless, calls for changing the constitution to allow the president to stay longer in office united Egypt’s generally fractured political opposition. Opponents of the proposed constitutional amendment say they are afraid that this would do away with political gains secured since the 2011 revolution.

Egypt’s 1971 constitution set limits of two 6-year terms on the presidency. In 1980, parliament removed the limits on number of terms, allowing Hosni Mubarak to remain president from October 1981 to February 2011, when he was ousted from office.

A constitution drafted in 2013 limited the presidency to two 4-year terms.

Critics point out that the issue of amending the constitution must overlook political considerations. The 1980 constitutional amendment was pushed through by supporters of then-President Anwar Sadat, who was assassinated a few months later. It was Mubarak, Sadat’s successor, who benefited from the amendment on the presidential terms.

“This is why I think amending the constitution will be a betrayal of the people,” said MP Haitham al-Hariri, a member of a leftist opposition bloc. “Some people want to bring us four decades back but I think the people will not allow them to do this.”