Egypt constitution amendment proposed with presidential term extensions at forefront

It could allow President Sisi to remain in office beyond 2022 when his two-term limit ends

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi reacts during a joint press conference with his French counterpart after their meeting in Cairo on January 28, 2019. French President Emmanuel Macron called for "respect for individual freedoms" during his meeting with Sisi on his first official visit to Egypt. / AFP / Ludovic MARIN
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Pro-government parliamentarians in Egypt submitted a house motion to amend the country’s constitution on Sunday, a move that could allow President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi to remain in office beyond 2022, the year in which his maximum two-term limit ends under the 2014 charter.

The move by the required fifth of the chamber’s 596 deputies was widely expected and is virtually certain to be adopted by the legislature, which is packed with supporters of the general-turned-president. He was elected in 2014, a year after he, as defence minister, led the military’s ouster of Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose one year as president proved divisive.

Under the constitution, the amendments must be put to a national referendum, which some legislators  expect to be held in the summer.

Demands for the extension of presidential terms, which currently stand at four years, have been circulating for months, with pro-Sisi press and media figures arguing that they are too short and that the 64-year-old leader needed more time to bring to fruition his ambitious drive to modernise the country and overhaul its economy and infrastructure.

Egyptian Parliament Speaker Ali Abdel-Al confirmed that he has received the motion. Addressing the chamber, he said he referred it to the chamber’s “General Committee” to examine the legality of the motion before it can be debated by specialised committees and later by the house’s plenary.

Mr Abdel-Al, himself a constitutional expert and a die-hard supporter of the president, said: “(The proposed amendments) are rooted in the interest of both the state and the Egyptian people.”

Beside the extension of presidential terms, the proposed amendments include the introduction of the job of vice president, a return of an upper chamber, or a senate, and the enshrining of a quota of 25 per cent for women in the House of Deputies. Also included is “suitable” representation for workers, farmers, youths and people with special needs in the legislature.

One lawmaker who signed off on the motion, Mahmoud Badr, said it proposed that presidential terms be extended to six years while the cap of two terms remained unchanged. When pressed for clarifications, he said a transitional clause might be needed, hinting that Mr Sisi could serve two more terms of six years each after his current term expires in 2022 as a one-off arrangement.

If that turns out to be the case, Mr Sisi would be close to 80 years of age at the end of a second, six-year term in office in 2034.  Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was 82 years old when ousted by an uprising in 2011.

“Judging by what we have seen on the ground, four years were not enough,” said Mr Badr who, like other sponsors of the motion, maintained that the proposed amendments could be tweaked or rejected while in the legislative process.

Mr Sisi, who has publicly stated his contempt for politics, has repeatedly vowed to step down if he no longer commands the support of Egyptians. “I stand here empowered by the will of Egyptians and if that ceases to exist, I will immediately step down,” a visibly angry Mr Sisi told a joint news conference last week in Cairo with French President Emmanuel Macron, who publicly criticised Egypt’s human rights record during his visit.

Mr Sisi last year won a second term in office after running virtually unchallenged – the only other candidate was a little-known politician ranked among his staunchest supporters – and has overseen a far-reaching crackdown against political Islamists and secular and pro-democracy activists.

Under his rule, Egypt has been harshly criticised over its poor human rights record, suppression of freedoms and independent media. He has tirelessly argued that human rights should not be exclusively interpreted as political rights or the freedom of expression, but must be widened to include the right to suitable housing, health care and education.

“We are not Europe or America,” he said last week.

“We are a country that has its unique conditions and nature,” he said, before citing a series of initiatives he led to provide housing to families most at risk, health care and a costly fight against terrorists.

However, Sunday’s move in parliament to extend his time at the helm of the Arab world’s most populous nation could not have been taken without his consent. It also reflects the widely held belief among his supporters that he is the most suited and equipped to lead the country.

There are no independent opinion polls in Egypt to gauge Mr Sisi’s popularity, which critics say has been dented by the steep rise in prices caused by the ambitious economic reforms he launched in 2016. However, his government’s concerted efforts to shield the poor from price rises, improved security and his goodwill gestures to women and the large Christian minority are likely to ensure that the amendments receive a majority “yes” vote in a referendum.