Rifts emerge over Egyptian MPs move to extend presidential terms

Approximately 155 members of the 596-seat parliament have signed a petition for the legislature to debate proposed amendments to the constitution.
Sunday 10/02/2019
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi speaks at the parliament meeting hall in Cairo, last June.  (AFP)
A clock reset? Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi speaks at the parliament meeting hall in Cairo, last June. (AFP)

CAIRO - The Egyptian parliament has started the process of amending the 2014 constitution to extend presidential term limits.

Approximately 155 members of the 596-seat parliament have signed a petition for the legislature to debate proposed amendments to the constitution that could lead to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi remain in his post beyond 2022, when his second term in office ends.

“Amending the constitution is a necessary matter now,” said MP Mahmoud Badr, one of the petition’s signatories. “The 2014 constitution was drafted in exceptional circumstances but now things have changed.”

Article 140 of Egypt’s 2014 constitution states: “The President of the Republic is to be 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.”

The proposal in parliament would extend presidential terms to six years and reportedly includes a “transitional clause” that would reset the clock on Sisi’s presidency, potentially allowing him to remain in power until 2034.

Those advocating the change say Sisi’s mission in the presidency is far from accomplished. Supporters of the president took to social media with the hashtag “Kamill al-Meshwar” (“Completethe Journey”).

“Four years are far from enough,” Badr said.

Sisi became president in 2014 when Egypt was near bankruptcy and dealing with terrorism. He has since restored Egypt’s regional standing and provided greater security, although terrorism remains a problem in some areas, including the Sinai Peninsula.

Sisi also instituted huge development and infrastructure projects, including building a new capital on the outskirts of Cairo and prioritising Egypt’s energy industry, ending power shortages that had afflicted the country.

To afford these programmes Cairo has had to pursue a stringent plan of economic reform, including slashing fuel, electricity and water subsidies along with liberalisation of the exchange rate of the Egyptian pound.

The reforms hit Egypt’s middle classes with many worried about the rise in commodity prices and fearing which subsidies could be cut next.

The proposed extension of the presidential term is uniting the opposition and heralding a potentially lengthy struggle for protecting what many view as the biggest achievement of the 2011 revolution, which ousted autocrat Hosni Mubarak, namely limiting Egypt’s presidents’ time in office.

Mubarak, who became president when Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981, spent three decades in the presidency.

Several NGOs have signed a statement in opposition to changing the constitution and potentially giving Sisi more time in power

“The legitimacy of the president is conditional on his respect to the constitution that brought him to office,” said former diplomat and novelist Ezzedine Choukri Fishere in a blog post. “Violations by the president against the constitution destroy the basis of his legitimacy.”

Opposition MP Ahmed Tantawi, a member of the independent 25/30 parliamentary coalition that takes its name from the January 25, 2011, and June 30, 2013, revolutions that ousted presidents Mubarak and Muhammad Morsi, said the group would vote against the amendments.

“We will use all tools available to us in parliament to do this and will ask other MPs to vote against the amendments,” Tantawi said. “It is then up to the people to decide whether these amendments should be made.”

If the constitutional amendments are approved by two-thirds of MPs, the changes would then be put before the Egyptian people in a national referendum, perhaps this summer.

Apart from extending the presidential term, the proposed amendments include the introduction of the office job of vice-president, a return of an upper chamber of parliament and a quota of 25% for women MPs in what would become the lower house of parliament.

The proposed amendments would allow the president to select the head of the constitutional court and the leaders of judicial bodies and appoint the public prosecutor. They would ban the trial of civilians in military courts unless they are accused of attacking military facilities, equipment or personnel.

The 155 lawmakers who signed petitions calling for amending the constitution make up more than 20% of parliament required for proposed amendments to be debated by the legislature.