Should the proposed constitutional amendments now being discussed by the parliament be adopted – as it appears they will, the people of Egypt will find themselves living in a regime quite unlike the one they voted for in 2014.
Following the ouster of president Mohamed Morsi and the army takeover on July 3, 2013 led by then-defense minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, a constitution was drafted under his aegis and adopted by an overwhelming majority.
It provided for the traditional division of powers between the executive, legislative and judicial branches as well as checks and balances between the prerogatives of the president and those of parliament.
According to article 140, presidents were to be elected for a four-year term and could be reelected for only one more term as is in the case in the United States.
It was seen as a strong signal to the West to the effect that the new regime would be liberal – in Middle Eastern terms – after the two revolutions, which had ended the rule of Hosni Mubarak and that of Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood.
What is now on the table is a revamped article 140 to extend the presidential term from four to six years, with a proviso that would allow President Sisi – who was reelected in June 2018 for a second four-year term ending in 2022 – to be a candidate for a further two terms of six years, that is until 2034. Altogether, 20 years of unbroken rule.
Sisi’s supporters had floated proposals in recent months that tended to extend the four-years period and/or cancel the two-terms limitation in what seems to have been a carefully planned campaign.
The next step came in December with a brief filed to the Court for Urgent Affairs demanding that parliament hold a hearing on constitutional changes to presidential terms limits. The court postponed its answer “until it had studied the issue.”
Prominent journalist Yasser Risk, head of the Al Akhbar group, then wrote a series of articles to explain that the change was needed because of the dangers facing Egypt. Partisans of the president stress that he restored stability to the country and must be allowed to continue his fight against Islamic terrorism while developing the economy.
They emphasize his very real achievements and his initiatives in the fields of infrastructure, trade and agriculture. With the assistance of the International Monetary Fund, Egypt enjoyed a yearly growth of 4% to 5% in the past two years and confidently expects a sustainable growth of 7% to 8% in the coming years.
While the president had said in the past that he was against constitutional changes and would stick to two four-year terms, a different campaign was being waged in the background and now came to fruition with very little opposition from the parliament.
According to article 226 of the present constitution, changes can be proposed by at least a fifth of the assembly and if they are rejected, they cannot be proposed again until the end of the current legislature.
Furthermore, there can be no changes to articles dealing with the two-term limitation and to the principles of freedom and equality unless they are backed by “suitable guarantees.”
But these safeguards were easily breached and on February 3, 2019, 155 members of parliament – representing more than the required fifth – demanded that the proposed changes be discussed. The chairman duly submitted the proposal to a parliamentary commission, which in turn brought it to a vote in the plenum on February 14.
Out of the 596 members, 485 voted for the move, 16 voted against and 90 chose to stay at home. Only two of the 15 parties and blocks represented had opposed the changes.
There are still a number of hurdles.
The proposals have been sent to the Constitution and Laws Commission, which has 60 days to hear arguments against from public institutions and individuals and prepare a final draft for ratification by parliament.
The president would then have to fix a date for a referendum no later than 30 days from that ratification.
THERE ARE other, no less significant changes in the proposed amendments.
Article 160 stipulated that the prime minister would take over should the president be incapacitated while the parliament prepared for the election of a new president.
Now, the president himself will appoint one or more vice presidents and designate who would replace him in case of need.
Article 200 stipulated that the army is tasked with protecting the country and preserve its safety and integrity.
A new paragraph adds “protecting the constitution and democracy as well as fundamental elements of the country and its culture and the people’s achievements regarding the rights to freedom.”
These are fields traditionally left to the parliament, the judiciary and civil society organizations.
Handing them over to the army, not known for its respect of human rights, seems problematic.
Then there are significant changes in the judiciary: The president will appoint the president of the supreme court of the constitution and the vice presidents as well as the attorney-general.
Previously they were nominated by members of the judiciary and the president ratified the nominations. Competences of the Council of State, that is the supreme administrative court that deals with conflicts between various branches of government and checks all laws passed by parliament for conformity with the constitution, have been curtailed. The council will only check laws at the request of parliament.
A senate will be created, comprised of 250 members elected for five years, two-thirds through general election and a third appointed by the president. The parliament itself will have fewer members – 450, with women making at least a fourth of that number.
Altogether, the president will concentrate all powers for a long time and be able to rule without having to answer to the judiciary or the legislative branch.
But why did he decide on a path that will exacerbate opposition to his regime in the West? Does he have reasons to fear that the still undecided fight against Islamic terrorism will endanger the country’s stability? Or is he concerned about the rise of a popular movement protesting the high cost of living caused by his far reaching – and necessary – reforms?
Could it be that he believes that Egypt is threatened by regional unrest?
The ongoing civil war in Libya shows no sign of coming to an end and Islamic organizations still smuggle large quantities of weapons, ammunitions and explosives to the Islamic State in Sinai.
Diplomatic relations with Turkey and Qatar have been severed because the close ties of these countries with the Muslim Brotherhood; however, their support – financial and otherwise – for the fight of the Brotherhood against Sisi is not abating.
Turkey is deepening its involvement in Libya and dispatches weapons to Islamic groups there in violation of UN embargo.
Then there is Iran, fueling the Houthi insurgency in Yemen, which has taken over part of the country and could threaten navigation in the Red Sea.
Above all, the massive Renaissance dam being built on the Blue Nile by Ethiopia could sharply curtail Egypt’s vital water supply. Efforts at finding a compromise are underway but should they fail one cannot exclude the possibility of an armed conflict.
This overall fraught situation could explain why Sisi has gone on an unprecedented shopping spree for huge amounts of weapons, planes, helicopters and war ships in Russia and in France in spite of the military assistance provided by the United States.
Last but perhaps not least, the changes may be intended to reflect the preeminent role of the army in Egyptian society. It is the symbol of the unity of the country and is much loved by the people who are proud of their soldiers.
Surveys shows that Egyptians believe it must play an important part in ruling the country.
There will be some vocal political and media opposition to the proposed changes in the next days and weeks and objections presented to the Constitutional Commission.
But without popular support they are not expected to prevent the new articles from being approved, perhaps with minor adjustments.
In a matter of months Sisi would then be able to rule without being hampered by political or judicial restraints.
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