Over the year, from January 2018 to February 2019, approximately twenty-five reports related to Egypt’s constitutional changes have been published by twelve think tanks and institutions. The institutions that monitored the constitutional changes in Egypt over the year include: The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (4 papers), Egyptian Institute for Studies (4 papers), Middle East Institute (3 papers), Carnegie Endowment (2 papers), Italian Institute for International Political Studies (2 papers), Project on Middle East Democracy (1 paper), and the Human Rights Watch (1 paper). The primary discussion surrounding constitutional changes over the year has consistently revolved around the electoral process and the presidential terms (19), followed by judiciary laws (8). Fewer papers mention the expansion of military privileges (6), and civil society and criminal laws (4). This analysis will only discuss the constitutional amendments related to changes in presidential terms.
Since January 2018, Egyptian policymakers and media outlets have expected a push for constitutional amendments in the country (1), especially after the March 2018 presidential elections (2). Initially these changes focused on the presidential term limits, but early in the new year, the Coalition in Support of Egypt put forth a broader package of draft constitutional amendments to the Speaker (3).
The draft constitution put forth on February 3, 2019 by 155 members of the Parliamentary Alliance to Support Egypt Coalition proposes to amend twelve articles in the 2014 constitution including the abolition of two articles, and the introduction of two new articles (4). The amendments propose to extend presidential terms from four to six years with a maximum of two terms. A separate provision, however, enables the current president to pursue re-election once his current term ends (5) substantially increasing the presidential term.
Furthermore, the draft amendments authorize the president to chair a Supreme Council for Judicial Bodies and Entities and appoint heads of various judicial bodies (6). Expanding the role of the military, draft amendments assign the armed forces the role of “safeguarding the constitution and democracy” (7). Other provisions in the draft amendments package include: the creation of at least one vice president position; the creation of a female quota in the House of Representatives and more representation of minorities; the removal of the State Council’s authority to review contract proposals that involve public or state authorities; and an establishment of a second chamber of parliament, one-third of which would be appointed by the president (8).
After being presented to the Parliament, two thirds approval must be met for a referendum to take place presenting the proposal to the Egyptian public. If majority public votes in favor of the changes, the amendments will take effect (9). As of February 14, 2019, the Parliament has passed the constitutional amendments with overwhelming support (10). The amendments, if supported in the national referendum (expected to take place in early May), will allow Abdel Fattah El-Sisi to remain in power until 2034 and also change constitutional articles referring to the judiciary, the media, the Armed Forces, and the legislature (11).
These amendments threaten the political future of Egypt and risk further solidifying a system of authoritarian rule. Despite the fact that some proposed amendments may increase representation of minority groups, it will take place in a broader context of decreased decision-making ability and influence for the individual policymaker (12). The amendments, in fact, raise substantial concerns about democratic principles, freedoms, and rights protected by the constitution (13). They have garnered strong opposition from political parties, public figures, members of the 2014 Constitution draft committee, and members of the general public in Egypt (14).
A petition has been created to voice opposition and support protests. The petition has two hundred signatories, which include: ten political parties, nine members of the committee that drafted the 2014 Constitution, eleven human rights organizations in Egypt. Several Think Tanks and research institutions have also put out statements against the new amendments (15).
One would imagine that debate and struggle over constitutional amendments should have presented an opportunity for Egyptian civil society and political actors to create real opposition to the resurgent authoritarian regime. With the current regime’s displays of control and authoritarian military supported rule, however, there seem to be few obstacles to passing these radical constitutional amendments (16) further illustrating and institutionalising Sisi’s strongman rule.
While all proposed changes to the constitution are significant to Egypt’s political and social landscape, the most pressing amendment is the extension of the presidential term. The extension of Sisi’s power, expansion of military authority, and the president’s exercise of control over the legislative and judicial branches of government seem to be a continuous trend in Egyptian polity (17). Solidifying these trends in the constitution, however, strongly threatens to dismantle the rule of law in the country and lead to severe constriction of the public and political sphere (18). Officials package the extended power of the current president as a means to safeguard the constitution and democracy; and maintain the foundations of the state and its civilian nature by maintaining the gains of the people, and the rights and freedoms of the individual (19). In effect, it is packaged as a means to stabilise the country through consistent leadership. This is, however, not the case. Extending the presidential term enshrines Sisi’s authoritarian control over the state, tightening the grip of executive power on all judicial bodies and increasing the military’s role. As a result, this significantly narrows Egypt’s political life, eliminating the possibility of peaceful, if any, transfer of power and freezing the overall democratic project to build a modern democratic civil state (20).
In addition, extending Sisi’s term continues to, if not further, tightens control over the public sphere. Through his time as president, Sisi’s government has stifled political opposition, media institutions, and civil society activists (21). Furthermore, Sisi’s extended presidential term supports a regime that practices violations and repression systematically and institutionalises the practice of overlooking and violating a formal constitution (22).
Sisi’s term extension also means continual use by his regime to legalize authoritarian rule in Egypt through constantly amending the constitution to fit its agenda. As Sisi was put into power by the military through coup d’etat in 2013, he could be replaced in the same manner. It is crucial for him, then, to illustrate, superficially, popular support through fake and unfair elections (23) and legalize his actions by amending the constitution, which, evidently, is quite easy in Egypt (24). In this way he is institutionalising and legalising his authoritarian rule repressing any little gains that were potentially made in the last eight years.
The Egyptian Constitution has been dissolved, suspended, and amended many times over the history of Egypt. The current Egyptian Constitution was implemented in January 2014 when Sisi took power (25). This replaced its predecessor, the 2012 constitution (26), which was suspended when President Mohamed Morsi was ousted in 2013 (27). Amendments in a country’s constitution is a necessary part of state building, but the continuously changing constitution in Egypt shows a weak political and legal state; and in the current political climate, poses monumental risks to the country (28).
Under Sisi’s superficially “democratic” rule, the process of legalizing authoritarian rule and concentrating power in the hands of the ruler, some argue, has been exercised more than under previous rulers (29). The roots of a weak state require a deeper inquiry into the history of Egypt’s authoritarian rule, however, it seems Egypt is significantly in a worse condition than it was eight years ago. It seems the ousting of Mohamad Morsi, first democratically elected president in Egypt (30), and suspension of the constitution in 2013 has created a weaker Egypt and led to the continuous civil and political unrest that is present in Egypt today.
(1), (5), (6), (7), (12), (25), (26), (27), https://timep.org/reports-briefings/timep-brief-draft-constitutional-amendments/
(9), (10), (13), (14), (15),
(11), (18), https://en.eipss-eg.org/egypt-constitutional-amendments-and-devious-routes/