Egyptian opposition states position on constitutional changes

If put to a full referendum, the critics say they could urge the public to vote against the alterations

Magdy Abdel-Hamid, spokesman of the Civil Democratic Movement, speaks during a news conference at the headquarters of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party in Cairo. Reuters
Magdy Abdel-Hamid, spokesman of the Civil Democratic Movement, speaks during a news conference at the headquarters of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party in Cairo. Reuters

A coalition of leftist and secular parties on Wednesday declared their opposition to constitutional amendments that would potentially allow the country's general-turned-president to stay in office until 2034, saying it felt inclined to call on voters to reject them when they are put to a referendum.

The coalition's rejection of the proposed changes came just hours after Egypt's actors guild ordered the immediate expulsion of two prominent members – film stars Khaled Abul Naga and Amr Waked – accusing the pair of "committing high treason against the nation and the people" for lobbying US congressmen against the amendments.

"The union for actors declares the cancellation of the membership of the two. It also distances itself from what they have done and would like to emphasize that it will not tolerate anyone who betrayed his country among its members," the guild said in a statement late on Tuesday.

Mr Abul Naga is barely known outside Egypt and the Arab world, but Mr Waked's recognition goes well beyond that. He appeared in the 2005 hit Syriana, as well as 2011’s Salmon Fishing in The Yemen, and 2014’s Lucy.

Both actors were active participants in the 2011 uprising that toppled the regime of longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak. The pair, who live in exile abroad, are critical of the rule of President Abdel-Fattah El Sisi.

The union's harsh reaction to their lobbying in Washington is in line with the mood of pro-government media that has portrayed political contact with foreign powers outside official channels as tantamount to treason.

The proposed constitutional amendments are currently under discussion in parliament, a 596-seat chamber packed with supporters of the president that is virtually certain to adopt the changes. A nationwide referendum on the amendments will be held either next month or early in May when the government will likely seek to mobilise its vast resources to ensure a win for the "yes" vote.

"The amendments are unconstitutional and will enshrine dictatorship and authoritarian rule and end the chances of establishing a modern civilian state," the coalition said in a statement. "At any rate, the movement is inclined to accept the dominant view for active participation, going to the ballots and voting against the proposed amendments," it said, adding that it will monitor whether the political climate surrounding the vote would allow voters to freely express their will.

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The amendments extend from four to six presidential terms, keep a two-term cap but introduce a new, "provisional" clause that allows Mr El Sisi, in power since 2014, to run for two, six-year terms when his current one ends in 2022. Mr El Sisi, whose rule is defined by his emphasis on stability and security, has not spoken in public about the amendments. They, however, could not have been proposed without the prior approval of the government.

Besides the presidential terms, the changes accord the military a political role as "guardian" of the state and its institutions. The move would formalise the army's domination of political life since officers seized power in a 1952 coup and later toppled the monarchy. The changes also empower the president to appoint top lawyers, create an upper chamber, or senate, and give women a 25 per cent quota in parliament.

Pro-government lawmakers led by speaker Ali Abdel-Al, a staunch supporter of the president, maintain that the proposed changes are vital to reform the country's political system. They say the 64-year-old Mr El Sisi has done so much for Egypt since taking office in 2014 that he deserves to be left at the helm until he completes the mega-infrastructure and development projects he has embarked on. These include building a new capital in the desert east of Cairo along with some dozen other new cities as well as a network of roads and bridges.

But those against the bill disagree.

"There is not a single person in Egypt who is indispensable," George Ishaq, a member of the opposition movement and a veteran political activist, told a news conference in downtown Cairo. "Egypt is full of people who can do anything."

Parliament on Wednesday resumed its "societal debate" on the proposed changes and several of the opposition leaders who addressed the news conference have been invited to participate. But one of them said their participation would likely prove to be no more than a formality, given that as many as 200 people were taking part in Wednesday's hearing.

"What kind of dialogue will that be with 200 participants?" asked Farid Zahran, leader of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party. "The whole thing is almost a formality, but I will go because if I don't they will claim that we reject a dialogue."

The processing of the amendments in parliament is taking place against a backdrop of a continuing crackdown on dissent that has over the past five years seen legal proceedings against thousands of Islamists and some of the iconic figures of the 2011 uprising.

Authorities have also silenced most critical voices in the media, restricted independent internet sites and the work of rights groups.

Mr El Sisi rejects repeated criticism of Egypt's human rights record under his watch, saying he is more focused on realising the rights of Egyptians to housing, medical care and education. His loyalists in the media insist that Egypt is at a state of war — security forces are battling Islamic militants in northern Sinai — and security must be placed ahead of all else.

Published: March 27, 2019 06:49 PM


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