Egypt’s parliament to consider changing presidential term limits

Hasaballah referred to political, economic and security challenges that make Sisi remaining in office a necessity.
Sunday 20/01/2019
A third term? Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (R) giving a speech during his swearing-in ceremony for a second four-year term in office, at the parliament meeting hall in the capital Cairo, last June. (AFP)
A third term? Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (R) giving a speech during his swearing-in ceremony for a second four-year term in office, at the parliament meeting hall in the capital Cairo, last June. (AFP)

CAIRO - A senior parliamentary official said the Egyptian parliament would consider demands to amend the constitution and change presidential term limits, which could allow Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to extend his time in office beyond 2022 when his current term ends.

“Amending the constitution is a must now, given the huge challenges facing our country,” MP Salah Hasaballah, the spokesman for parliament, said.

Hasaballah’s remarks were made shortly after well-known Egyptian journalist Yasser Rizk wrote an opinion article calling for Sisi to be given more time in office. Writing December 29 in Egypt’s al-Akhbar newspaper, Rizk, a former Sisi speechwriter, said the constitution had been drafted in haste and called for Article 140 of the constitution to be amended.

Article 140 states: “The President of the Republic shall be elected for a period of four calendar years, commencing from the day following the termination of the term of his predecessor. The President may only be re-elected once.”

Calls for lengthening presidential terms started even before Sisi was re-elected last March and the focus on changing the constitution seems not to be on withdrawing the two-term limit but increasing the length of each presidential term. Rizk called for a presidential term to be increased to six years, meaning that, if passed, Sisi could remain in office until 2024 without facing re-election.

“This amendment should be a transitional one, meaning that it should not apply to future presidents,” Rizk added.

Rizk is not alone in seeking an amendment to Egypt’s constitution. There is a growing chorus of Sisi supporters saying he should be given more time in office. Similar demands have appeared on Egyptian television screens, in the legislature, from political parties backing the president and even in Egypt’s courtrooms.

A pro-Sisi lawyer has filed a lawsuit to commit parliament to debate a list of proposed amendments to the constitution, including changes to articles regarding the presidential term.

Those propagating longer presidential terms say Sisi needs to stay longer in the top post to complete the reforms he started after becoming president in 2014 after a military-backed popular uprising against Islamist President Muhammad Morsi.

“Eight years are far from enough for the president, any president, to implement his reform programme to the full,” said Moataz Abdel Fattah, a professor of political science at Cairo University. “Only in the United States can a president stay in power for eight years but Egypt is not as politically stable as the United States.”

Sisi’s economic reforms made life difficult for the poor and millions of middle-class Egyptians but are also credited with keeping the economy from collapsing.

He has also led a war against terrorism, modernising the military to confront an adapting threat. The introduction of major state-funded projects also sought to help ordinary Egyptians to mixed results.

It seems reforms are paying off with Egypt’s economic growth rate rising, exports increasing and imports decreasing. Tourism is returning amid improving security conditions, although a late December terrorist attack targeting a tourist bus in Giza demonstrates that the threat will perhaps never end.

Sisi has not commented on the wave of calls to amend the constitution. However, in November 2017, he told the US news channel CNBC that he opposed introducing amendments to the constitution to allow multiple terms for the president. A month earlier, he told the French news channel France 24 that he preferred amendments to the constitution not be introduced while he is in office.

The fear among Sisi’s opponents is that changing the constitution to allow presidents to stay longer in power would erase gains of the two revolutions that swept autocrat Hosni Mubarak from power in 2011 and removed Morsi in 2013.

“Amending the constitution will take us many steps back,” said Hassan Nafaa, a political science professor at Cairo University. “Introducing limited presidential terms and making the transfer of power possible were among the most important gains of the 2011 revolution.”

Mubarak stayed in office for 30 years and was reportedly grooming his son to succeed him, with many viewing his actions to do so as a main impetus behind the revolution.

The 1971 constitution, which allowed Mubarak to obtain five 6-year terms in the presidency, was amended a short time before he took over in October 1981 so his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, could stay in office longer. However, Sadat was assassinated by an Islamist militant.

Hasaballah referred to political, economic and security challenges that make Sisi remaining in office a necessity.

“Egyptians made two revolutions and they know that the time of endless rule is over,” he said. “It is up to the people to decide whether the constitution should be amended or not.”

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