Egypt’s parliament, a 596-seat chamber packed with supporters of President Abdel Fattah El Sisi, voted overwhelmingly on Thursday in favour of constitutional amendments that could see the 64-year-old leader in power until 2034, a move that one opposition lawmaker described as a throwback to a political system more suited to the Middle Ages.
A total of 485 lawmakers voted to support the amendments in principle and refer them to the house’s legislative and constitutional committee, which will have 60 days to discuss and hold hearings on the changes before referring a final version to the plenary for a vote.
A nationwide referendum will follow, most likely before the start in May of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan. The adoption of the changes by the house and later by voters is virtually a foregone conclusion, although a low turnout for the referendum could cast doubt on their legitimacy.
Mr El Sisi, who has publicly expressed his contempt for politics, has so far remained publicly silent on the proposed changes. He traveled to Germany on Thursday to attend a security conference, a day after he flew home from Ethiopia, where he took over the one-year, rotating presidency of the African Union.
Key among the changes is the extension of presidential terms to six years instead of the current four. The change, however, keeps the two-term cap stipulated in the 2014 charter but introduces a new article allowing Mr Sisi to run for a third and fourth term when his current one ends in 2022. Another crucial change gives the military, Egypt’s most dominant institution, an overriding political role as guardian of the state, the constitution and democracy.
Parliament speaker Ali Abdel-Al, a die-hard Sisi supporter with a history of shouting down dissenting lawmakers, has insisted that the president’s office had absolutely nothing to do with the proposed changes. He also took issue with an article in the 2014 constitution that clearly prohibits changes to the one pertaining to presidential terms, except when amended to provide more guarantees against authoritarian rule.
“The amendments originated in the House of Representatives, not the presidency,” said Mr Abdel-Al, himself a constitutional expert. “The presidency of the republic has absolutely nothing to do with them,” he said in response to lawmakers demanding that the president’s office should be consulted about the changes relevant to the presidential terms and the special article tailored for Sisi to stay in office for 15 more years.
Mr Abdel-Al has pledged transparency and a societal dialogue as part of the parliamentary process to amend the constitution. Ha has also sought to defend the provisional article, which some lawmakers and critics believe could successfully be challenged in court as unconstitutional. However, the amendments empower Mr Sisi to appoint top judges and introduce a body chaired by him that would potentially run the affairs of the judiciary.
“A historic provisional clause has been introduced for a historic figure (Sisi),” he said, echoing the argument by the president’s supporters that Mr Sisi’s achievements to date warrant giving him more time to bring to fruition his drive to modernise Egypt’s infrastructure, overhaul its economy and defeat Islamic militants fighting security forces for years.
“Those who speak of human dignity must acknowledge that this regime protects human dignity,” said Mr Abdel-Al, citing the disappearance of bread and gas lines and a campaign sponsored by Sisi to eradicate Virus C.
Lawmaker Ahmed Tantawi, a member of a small opposition bloc in the house, strongly disagreed when Mr Abdel-Al gave him the floor for two minutes.
“In a nutshell, what we are doing here is unconstitutional,” he said. The amendments, he said, concentrated “absolute powers” in the hands of the president. “We are regressing to the logic of a medieval political system,” he added.
Mr Sisi has in the past stated, albeit not categorically, that he would not stay in office beyond his second term or if Egyptians stopped supporting him. His public silence on the proposed amendments and Mr Abdel-Al’s assertion that he had nothing to do with them could be framed by his supporters as a case of a president bowing to the will of the people.
Mr Sisi was first elected in 2014 with a landslide victory, capitalising on a tidal wave of popular support after the ouster the previous year of Mohammed Morsi, an Islamist president whose one-year rule proved divisive. Last year, he ran virtually unchallenged, with the only other candidate a little-known politician known to be among his supporters. Potentially serious candidates were jailed or forced out of the race.