Egyptians expect few hurdles to extension of presidential terms

If the committee, as expected. approves the final draft of the amendments, they will be referred for a final vote by parliament.
Sunday 24/02/2019
A strong support. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi speaks at the parliament meeting hall in Cairo, last June.(AFP)
A strong support. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi speaks at the parliament meeting hall in Cairo, last June.(AFP)

CAIRO - After the dust settled on parliament’s decision to agree in principle to constitutional amendments that could lead to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi remaining in power until 2034, few say there is enough opposition in parliament or broader society to derail the process.

“As long as the final opinion on the amendments belongs to the people… we must accept their opinion,” said Al Wafd Party Chairman Bahaa el-Din Abu Shoka in an interview with state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper. “Whatever the majority chooses must be accepted by all [Egyptians].”

A total of 485 members of Egypt’s 596-seat parliament voted to approve the amendments “in principle” on February 14, leading many politicians to express caution about amending the 2014 constitution.

The controversy revolves around special dispensation that would allow Sisi to seek an additional two terms in office after his current term — his second 4-year term — ends in 2022.

“History bears witness to everything we do now,” warned constitutional law expert Shawqi al-Sayed in an opinion article for the privately owned Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper. “It will have no mercy on anybody… The way the proposed amendments are drafted needs to be considered carefully. We are all responsible.”

The amendments are to be debated by parliament’s Legislative and Constitutional Affairs Committee, which is headed by Abu Shoka. The panel is to hear views of state institutions, civil society groups, trade unions and citizens. Abu Shoka confirmed there were plans to ensure that the parliamentary sessions would be broadcast live on television.

“I refuse any secrecy in what we are doing, especially when this revolves around making changes to the Egyptian Constitution,” Abu Shoka said.

If the committee, as expected. approves the final draft of the amendments, they will be referred for a final vote by parliament. If passed by two-thirds of parliament, as is likely, a general referendum would be scheduled. It is also likely to back the amendments.

Many are focusing on how the Egyptian public is likely to vote. Petitions and social media campaigns have been set up by backers and opponents of the issue.

“Two presidential terms, each of which is only four years, are far from enough for the president to complete the projects he has started,” said MP Atef Nasser, the head of the parliamentary bloc of the Nation’s Future Party, which controls about 40% of parliamentary seats.

“The conditions in which the 2014 constitution was drafted were exceptional, which was why the articles of this constitution came to reflect fears from repeating the problems of the past years.”

Giving the president an open-ended presidency was one of the problems the 2014 constitution wanted to avoid.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who was brought down in the 2011 revolution, spent three decades in power and, opponents said, was on the verge of establishing a political dynasty, grooming his son to succeed him as president.

The proposed amendments would set presidential terms limits in Egypt at two 6-year terms. A rider to the legislation makes Sisi, already elected to 4-year terms as president in 2014 and 2018, eligible to stand for two 6-year terms, giving him potentially 20 years in office.

“Present political conditions are totally unsuitable for introducing amendments to the 2014 constitution,” said MP Mohamed Amin, the deputy head of the centre-right Conservative Party. “Some of the articles of the constitution haven’t had enough chance for application.”

Amin was echoing some in the general public who might otherwise be supporters of Sisi but who fear Egypt could be turning its back on aspired democratic practices.

Most expect the amendments to easily pass through the parliamentary process and the referendum, given the strength of Sisi’s support. Almost all the nation’s 112 political parties are backers of the president.

Sisi is not the head of any political party and is generally viewed as rising above the partisan political milieu in Egypt. Both of his presidential election campaigns were preceded by grass-root nationwide petition campaigns, numbering in the tens of millions, calling on him to stand for president. He won the 2014 election with 96.9% of the vote and the 2018 election with 97.1%.

If the proposed amendments are added to the constitution, many expect a similar petition campaign to urge Sisi to accept the extension.

With parliament leading the charge to amend the constitution and the move seemingly backed by most of the public, few can argue that Sisi’s supporters are acting undemocratically despite the controversy surrounding the proposals.

“On the contrary, these amendments were proposed by lawmakers, not the president or the presidency,” said Tarek Fahmi, a political science professor at Cairo University. “There are no threats to the peaceful transition of power because there are institutions in this country.”