Egyptians approve constitutional changes but political apathy remains

Apart from extending the presidential terms to six years, the amendments reserve 25% of the seats of the legislature for women and widen the powers of the military.
Sunday 28/04/2019
High turnout. A voter casts her ballot on constitutional amendments at a polling station in Cairo, April 21.  (AP)
High turnout. A voter casts her ballot on constitutional amendments at a polling station in Cairo, April 21. (AP)

Cairo - A package of constitutional amendments that potentially lengthens Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s time in office until 2030 has been approved in a nationwide referendum.

“Security conditions are improving very noticeably and this is creating a general feeling that Egypt is going back to its internal stability,” said Tarek Fahmi, a political science professor at Cairo University. “Voter participation is also a reflection of public satisfaction with the performance of the president.”Almost 89% of the 26.4 million voters who participated in the referendum on the constitutional amendments April 20-22 voted “Yes.”

About 44% of Egypt’s 61 million eligible voters participated in the referendum, representing one of the highest voter turnouts in recent years. Turnout was 5% higher than the constitutional referendum in 2014 and 3% higher than 2018’s presidential elections, which Sisi won with 97% of the vote.

The voting process was marred by allegations of vote-buying and false reporting of numbers. “The announced figures, however precise, were not credible,” wrote Michele Dunne, director of the Middle East Programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in an analysis.

Long queues of voters formed outside many polling stations across Egypt during the three days of voting, especially on the last day, amid a major government-backed campaign seeking high voter turnout.

Voting was not, however, limited to older Egyptians or women, a common feature of elections in recent years. Young and middle-aged Egyptians also turned out in large numbers, an unexpected departure from their previous level of participation.

Sisi took centre stage in the vote, with the amendments including a transitional article that extends his current 4-year term by two years — ending in 2024 — and makes him eligible to run for re-election and a 6-year term that would end in 2030. Sisi’s first term ran 2014-18.

Some of those voting in the referendum held photos of the Egyptian president as though they were voting for him.

Following the April 23 announcement of the referendum results by the General Election Authority, Sisi thanked the public for participating in the vote.

“I salute with appreciation the great Egyptian people who impressed the world with national unity and awareness of the challenges facing our country,” Sisi wrote on Twitter.

Apart from extending the presidential terms to six years, the amendments reserve 25% of the seats of the legislature for women, grant Sisi the right to appoint the heads of judicial authorities, reinstitute the Senate and widen the powers of the military.

Boycotting the vote was at the centre of debate by Egypt’s frail political opposition and on social media. Many have warned that the constitutional amendments do away with the political gains Egyptians secured over the past nine years.

The amendments also formally task Egypt’s military to “protect the constitution and democracy and safeguard the basic components of the state and its civilian nature and the people’s gains and individual rights and freedoms,” the amended text of Article 200 reads.

That article, analysts said, underscores the growing role of the military in Egyptian political and social life, at a time when military-backed regimes are playing crucial roles in delicate transitions in Sudan and Algeria.

Critics expressed concern that the expanding role of the military in Egyptian political and economic affairs would strengthen Sisi’s grip on power.  The government has “made sure Egyptians don’t see any credible alternative to Sisi so that they don’t start to imagine an Egypt that is ruled by anyone else,” said Timothy Kaldas, a non-resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.

Egyptian Parliament Speaker Ali Abdel A’al said, the amendment does not mean that the army would play a political role.

“This article throws light on the role the armed forces play,” Abdel A’al said in parliament before the referendum. “They carry out their duties in full honesty and side with the choices of the people.”

Despite this, international human rights organisations warned that the amendment consecrates the military’s heightened role, particularly given that Article 204 opens the door for civilians to be tried by military courts in cases that represent an “assault” against military facilities, equipment, weapons, documents and public funds. Under the previous text of the article, military tribunals could only be convened in cases of a “direct assault.”

“These amendments aim to expand military trials for civilians, undermine the independence of the judiciary and strengthen impunity for human rights violations by members of the security forces, furthering the climate of repression that already exists in the country,” said Magdalena Mughrabi, Amnesty International’s deputy director for the MENA region.

Despite such fears, the amendments were strongly backed in Egypt’s parliament and by the electorate, including by the ultra-orthodox Salafist Al-Nour Party, the only remaining Islamist political force in the country.

All 12 Al-Nour Party MPs voted to pass the amendments after parliamentary wrangling. The Salafists, analysts said, need to walk a fine line between maintaining their presence on the political stage and avoiding clashing with Sisi’s administration, which has battled political Islam since taking office in 2014.

“The Salafists are smart,” said Tarek al-Beshbeshi, an expert on political Islam. “They saw for themselves how the Brotherhood paid a heavy price for antagonising the people.”