Egypt to vote on constitutional amendments amid fairness and transparency

Al-Sisi’s term could last until 2030 with new tweaks to the law.

A man walks in front of a banner reading, "Yes to the constitutional amendments, for a better future", with a photo of the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi before the approaching referendum on constitutional amendments in Cairo, Egypt April 16, 2019.  (photo credit: MOHAMED ABD EL GHANY/ REUTERS)
A man walks in front of a banner reading, "Yes to the constitutional amendments, for a better future", with a photo of the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi before the approaching referendum on constitutional amendments in Cairo, Egypt April 16, 2019.
CAIRO- Egyptian elections officials vowed on Wednesday that voting in next week’s snap referendum on a series of constitutional amendments that could extend President Abdel al-Fattah al-Sisi’s time in office until 2030 would be fair and transparent.
"The referendum on constitutional amendments will be completely supervised by the judiciary,” said Judge Lasheen Ibrahim, head of the National Election Authority, at a press conference held at the headquarters of the State Information Service in Cairo’s Nasser City district. "There will be a judge at every ballot box. The media and civil society [organizations] will be able to follow the process.”
Polls will be open Saturday through Monday with 55 million Egyptians eligible to vote on new and revised constitutional articles that increase the presidential term from four to six years, allocate 25 percent of parliamentary seats to women, re-introduces an upper Senate chamber, and reinstates the post of vice president.
The measures approved by the parliament Tuesday include provisions giving the president power to appoint pre-nominated judges, the head of the constitutional court, and the state prosecutor general.
“I agree with all the amendments, especially the women's quota for the House of Representatives and measures to make sure that the Copts have an honorable representation in the parliaments,” said Manal El Absy, president of the Arab Academy for Leadership Development, a Cairo nonprofit that provides executive skills training.
Ms. El Absy was a leader in the effort to bring women to the polls during elections held last March when al-Sisi ran for a second four-year term which he said would be his final one as president.
“But now there is consensus that the president needs a longer period to complete the development process that he started and reap the benefits of what he planted,” El Absy told The Media Line.
The ballot measure stipulates that Egypt’s head of state will now serve in six-year terms, with a transition clause that extends al-Sisi’s current term in office by two years – ending in 2024 – and makes him eligible for a final six-year term that would see him in the presidential palace until 2030 should he run and win.
“I expect that the turnout rate will be higher than the percentage of participation in the previous presidential elections,” added El Absy, a leader in the campaign to mobilize voters to ratify the new amendments which also include provisions describing Egypt’s army as the “guardian of the land, the constitution, democratic and personal rights, the civil state, and the gains of the people.”
It also gives the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces authority to approve the appointment of the nation’s defense minister – the post al Sisi held before he first ran as a candidate in the 2014 presidential election.
“I will vote no on these constitutional amendments,” Abdel Moneim Imam, Vice-President of the Justice Party, told The Media Line.
“The big problem in Egypt is not a problem of leadership, as much as the policy question of how to cultivate a society that ensures continuous political stability with a clear mechanism for the rotation of power,” said Imam, who added that “the quandary of Egypt since Nasser is the question of the circulation of power.”
While the “Yes” campaign has continuous access to government-controlled media and shopkeepers say they have been “encouraged” by local police officers to hang banners supporting the measure, only a handful of parliamentary opponents of the amendments have been given airtime on state TV and column inches in the four main state-run newspapers.
A total of 531 parliamentarians voted in favor of new amendments, 22 voted against, and one abstained.
“The constitutional amendments are malignant and deceitful, and they are aimed at exempting the current president from facing voters for another two years,” said lawmaker Ahmad Tantawi, a founding member of the Nasserist Karama Party which opposes normalization of relations with Israel and privatization of state-owned enterprises.
“The postponement of the upcoming presidential elections to 2024 coincides with the abolition of judicial supervision of executive decisions,” Tantawi added.
In recent years, independent judges have been one of the few checks on presidential power for instance ruling illegal a 2017 decision by al-Sisi to cede Egyptian sovereignty over the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia.
Opponents to the amendments are divided into two camps: liberal leaders who support voting no and participating in the referendum and more radical figures urging a boycott of what they insist is an unconstitutional exercise from the get-go.
The Reform and Development Party chaired by Mohamed Anwar El Sadat has urged citizens to turn out to vote ‘no.'
“Boycotting is not a solution because it will only help smoothly pass the amendments, and smash the Egyptian revolution and reversing all our gains in full open view,” said El Sadat, a nephew of the former Egyptian president.
Both ‘No’ and “Boycott” campaigns face significant hurdles in reaching the Egyptian public.
Internet providers in Egypt have blocked access to an estimated 34,000 online domains in an effort by authorities to stamp out opposition according to NetBlocks, a non-governmental organization that monitors cybersecurity and internet governance.
“I will boycott because the amendments themselves are contrary to the Constitution - specifically Article 224, said Sayed Abu El-Ela, a 35-year-old Cairo attorney.
Article 224 states the basic law “may not be amended or cancelled except pursuant to the rules and procedures stated by the Constitution," which was ratified by a 2014 referendum held five months after Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi was removed from power during the popular uprising and military intervention of June 2013.
“These amendments violate the constitutional requirements of the state which declared that power is ultimately vested in the people and these changes hand that authority over to the armed forces,” El-Ela told The Media Line.
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