Egypt constitutional changes set for weekend referendum

The national poll on a major constitutional change is being organised in the coming days

Banners reading in Arabic "do what is right", "participation is a responsibility", to urge Egyptians to participate in an upcoming referendum for the constitutional amendments, hang in Cairo on April 08, 2019. Egypt's parliament in February gave preliminary approval to constitutional changes that would allow President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to stay in power after his second term ends in 2022. The amendments will now be submitted to parliament's legislative commission which must draft them into legislation and return them to parliament within 60 days for a final vote. If the vote is passed by a majority of two thirds, parliament will then hold a referendum in line with the conditions of the 2014 constitution.
 / AFP / Mohamed el-Shahed
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The passage of constitutional amendments that could allow Egypt's president to stay in office until 2030 was put on a fast track on Wednesday with Friday set as the start of a referendum.

Egypt's National Election Commission announced that the poll of all Egyptians over the amendments will be held on April 19, 20 and 21 for those living abroad. At home, voting will take place on April 20, 21 and 22.

The announcement of the dates, made on live television, came less than 24 hours after the 596-seat parliament that overwhelmingly backs President Abdel-Fattah El Sisi voted by a large majority in favour of the proposals. Only 22 opposed the changes with one abstention.

For over a week, the capital city of Cairo as well as major urban centres across the country have been emblazoned with banners and billboards calling on Egyptians "do the right thing” and back the changes. The posters show an image of an index and thumb fingers combining to make the shape of a "yes" tick in the box found on a ballot paper.

While it's difficult to predict the scale of such a vote with any accuracy in a country where reliable opinion polls don't exist, a majority "yes" vote is a virtual certainty in this case given the state's vast resources will likely be rolled out to drum up support for the amendments. But the issue of importance for the government will be to ensure a respectable turnout to avoid questions of the legitimacy of the changes.

"Great people of Egypt, the nation is calling upon you to continue to build democracy and give your opinion on the constitutional amendments," Lasheen Ibrahim, the head of the election commission, said as he made the announcement.

Lasheen Ibrahim (C), chief of Egypt's National Election Authority (NEA), gives a press conference at its headquarters in the capital Cairo on April 17, 2019. Egypt set a referendum for April 20-22 on sweeping consitutional changes including an amendment that could extend President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's rule until 2030.  / AFP / Mohamed el-Shahed

Some of the amendments included in the changes are also likely to help secure a "yes" vote, such as allocating 25 per cent of parliament's seats to women that will appeal to female and progressive voters.

Mr El Sisi has, in his five years in office, gone to great length to voice his support for women empowerment and defend them against harassment, a widely spread problem in Egypt. He has a record six women in the current cabinet.

Ensuring "suitable" representation in parliament for minorities, Egyptian expatriates and people with special needs would likely deliver more tallies for the "yes" column.

Mr Sisi has also endeared himself to Christians, who account for about 10 per cent of Egypt's 100 million people. He has eased restrictions on the building of new churches or the renovation of existing ones and also insisted that new cities under construction have a sufficient number of Christian places of worship.

Many in the Christian community also revere Mr El Sisi for the 2013 removal of a divisive Islamist president they feared would disenfranchise them.

But not everyone backs the bill. The few opposition MPs that don’t support the president were vocal in their criticism ahead of Tuesday night’s parliamentary vote.

Opposition lawmakers have branded the endeavour a slide back to the authoritarian, 29/year rule of Hosni Mubarak given the extension of presidential terms.

The proposed changes would extend the president’s time in office from four to six years, but maintain the two-term cap for the top job. However, they introduce a new clause that is tailor-made for Mr El Sisi, retrospectively extending his present four-year term to six years and allowing him to run for another six-year term in 2024.

"These amendments are not in the interest of the country or the Egyptians," opposition lawmaker Haytham Al Hariri said before Tuesday's voting began. "We are bigger than tailor-making the constitution for the benefit of a specific person."

Mohammed Abdel-Ghani, another opposition lawmaker, said the amendments undermine the pillars of the state, erase the separation of its branches and concentrate power in the hands of the executive.

Parliament speaker Ali Abdel-Aal, a constitutional expert and a vocal supporter of Mr Sisi, criticised those focusing just on the extension of the president’s terms as unfair and biased.

In an address to lawmakers after Tuesday's night vote, he said the changes were rooted in the desire to enforce political reform. "The amendments are not without political and social gains that will inevitably be reflected on the economic performance and results."

Mr El Sisi was first elected to office in 2014, the year after he, as defence minister, led the military's ouster of an elected but divisive President Mohammed Morsi of the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. Mr El Sisi, 64, was last year elected for a second, four-year term, running virtually unchallenged after opponents dropped out or were strong-armed into stepping down. His sole rival was an obscure politician widely believed to be among his supporters.

Among the changes proposed to the constitution, adopted in 2014 and seen as progressive, will see the military given a supreme political role, the creation of a 180-seat upper house and also give Mr El Sisi more control over the judiciary, allowing him to appoint top judges and chair a new body to run the affairs of the judiciary.

But Mr Abdel-Aal has tried to play down the criticism by saying that the constitution should not be treated as holy scripture and that Egyptians have the right to amend it to keep pace with political and societal changes.