Sisi could lead Egypt until 2034 under proposed constitutional changes

President's supporters want to remove two-term limit and extend presidential terms to six years

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi speaks 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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Abdel Fattah El Sisi, Egypt's president of nearly five years, could stay at the helm of the Arab world's most populous country for another 15 under constitutional amendments proposed by legislators loyal to the general-turned-president.

The proposed changes to the 2014 constitution were handed to the parliament speaker Sunday, but their full extent was only revealed late in the day. In their entirety, they show a concerted effort to give the president wider powers and offer him the option to run for a third and fourth term after his current one expires in 2022.

The changes upend a crucial clause in the 2014 charter – widely considered among the most progressive Egypt has had – that sets presidential terms at four years and says a president may be re-elected only once. If the proposed amendments are adopted by the 596-seat chamber – which is packed with Sisi supporters  and later by a nationwide referendum, the president will be able to run for third and fourth terms of six years each and possibly stay in office until 2034, when he is about 80.

Barring unforeseen changes, it cannot be ruled out that Mr El Sisi – often seen cycling or running and known to work out regularly – will elect to try to stay in power until then.

He was elected president in 2014 with a landslide victory, capitalising on a tidal wave of support after he led the military’s ouster of an Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, the previous year. He won a second term in office last year, again with an overwhelming majority of the vote but after running against a little-known politician ranked among his avid supporters.

The shift from a transitional phase to the stability of the state has begun

Turnout in both votes was relatively low, but the use of the state’s vast resources, solid support among women, minority Christians, beneficiaries of an elaborate food ration system, and a sizeable segment of the population who see him as a safe pair of hands secured Mr El Sisi the votes he needed.

His high-octane drive to reshape Egypt as a modern nation with functioning infrastructure and a healthy economy have won him lavish praise in the West and broadened his support base at home.

However, critics believe the president’s popularity has been badly dented by the skyrocketing cost of living sparked by his ambitious economic reforms, which include lifting state subsidies, introducing new taxes and raising the price of a wide range of services and goods. His government’s zero tolerance for dissent has also eaten into support among a segment of the youth, critics say.

The president’s supporters have for months argued that Mr El Sisi needs more time in office to complete what they view as his drive to modernise Egypt, defeat Islamist militants and make the country immune to another rise to power by Islamists, as was the case in 2012 when Morsi was elected president.

“The shift from a transitional phase to the stability of the state has begun,” parliament speaker Ali Abdel-Al said about the proposed constitutional amendments. Speaking of the current term limits, he said: “Conditions on the ground, the situation in the region and the nation’s circumstances have proven that they are unsuitable.”

Besides the extension of presidential terms, the amendments include the introduction of the post of vice president, the return of an upper chamber of parliament, and enshrining a quota of 25 per cent for women in parliament. Also included is “suitable” representation in the legislature for Christians, workers, farmers, youths and people with special needs.

They will also give the president the power to appoint top judges and cancel the role of the judiciary in vetting draft legislation before it is voted into law.

“These amendments are a reversal of the constitutional and legal evolution Egypt has witnessed over the last century,” said Mustafa El Sayed, a political science lecturer. “They completely eliminate the separation of government branches and concentrate powers in the hands of one man.”

With most critics in the media silenced and opposition parties too weak to effectively challenge the amendments, critics have taken to social media to air their rejection of what they see as an attempt to enshrine an authoritarian government.

The hashtag “No to amending the constitution” has gained traction on Facebook, where activists and rights advocates are declaring their opposition to the changes.

Other critics questioned the legitimacy of the process to amend the constitution, citing the state of nationwide emergency and the suppression of freedoms.

“How can conditions described as exceptional and dangerous … be a good time to debate constitutional amendments of any kind,” Shereef Younis, a university lecturer on history, wrote on Facebook.