Amending the Constitution: Egypt’s President for Life?

Eight years after Egypt’s Arab Spring ushered in a brief period of democratic governance, the ruling regime in Cairo will make 2019 a year in which the head of state and military will gain new powers, further undermining hope for Egypt experiencing any democratic progress in the foreseeable future.
Amending the Constitution Egypt’s President for Life
Image by: Abdelillah Arahal/Inside Arabia

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi will expand and consolidate his power to a great degree after proposed constitutional changes are implemented later this year. Such amendments would do away with the limits that currently bar al-Sisi from serving more than two four-year terms, allowing a president to serve two six-year terms and paving the way for him to stay in power until 2034.

These new constitutional amendments would give al-Sisi the power to reshuffle Egypt’s Cabinet without parliamentary approval and appoint one-third of the members belonging to the “Council of Senators,” which is a second parliamentary chamber. Such reforms would also empower Egypt’s head of state to appoint the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court and make al-Sisi president of a powerful new judicial council that will effectively run Egypt’s entire judiciary, further undoing any notion of separation of powers. Another amendment to the Constitution would task the military with the responsibility of protecting “the constitution and democracy and the fundamental makeup of the country and its civil nature.”

On February 14, the parliament passed the proposed amendments with 485 of the 596 members voting in favor of the constitutional reforms. Now, these amendments will need the approval of the public via a referendum.

On February 14, the parliament passed the proposed amendments with 485 of the 596 members voting in favor of the constitutional reforms. Now, these amendments will need the approval of the public via a referendum. Egyptians will not vote on each proposed change separately, but rather in one package with a “Yes” or “No” vote.

Doubtless, the official results of the referendum will show a landslide “win” for al-Sisi, regardless of how the citizens vote in practice. Interestingly, however, regime officials will see the actual vote count and the number of “no” votes (even if never made public), which presumably will inform their views on al-Sisi’s level of legitimacy among the citizenry.

Egyptians supporting this package of amendments to Egypt’s 2014 constitution argue that such change would benefit Egypt’s long-term stability, security, and economic development. Yet if such constitutional changes are made, even more, power will be placed in the hands of the president and the military, moving Egypt even further than it is now from democracy and closer to autocracy and outright military dictatorship.

Without question, these coming changes will remove all semblances of checks and balances against Egypt’s president that were established in the 2014 Constitution, eroding such mechanisms for limiting al-Sisi’s power. However, the amendments pushed by al-Sisi’s ardent supporters include reforming the parliament with a quota ensuring a minimal level of representation by women and Christians—changes certainly aimed at appealing to the aspirations of the revolutionaries of 2011 despite the countless ways in which these constitutional changes would serve to further un-democratize Egypt.

“Arab Spring in Reverse”

The criticism of Hosni Mubarak’s government that grew during the 2000s manifested itself in large-scale protests during early 2011 and resulted in Mubarak’s overthrow after 30 years in power. Egypt’s Arab Spring uprising and the subsequent revolution gave hope to many Egyptians that their country’s post-Mubarak period would witness democratic advances. Yet the coup of 2013, which received strong support from several Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states (with the notable exception of Qatar), marked the end of Egypt’s brief democratic experiment in the post-2011 era.

According to many of al-Sisi’s critics, five and a half years after the ouster of Egypt’s first democratically-elected President Mohammed Morsi, Egypt is more oppressive than at any point in living memory, including under monarchical rule and even Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Arab nationalist regime that harshly cracked down on Islamists in the 1950s and 1960s.

Since 2013, the government led by al-Sisi has gradually eroded individual rights and civil liberties, contracted any room for political dialogue, and placed greater power in the hands of the military administration while issuing not only long-term prison sentences to tens of thousands of political prisoners but also death sentences. Unquestionably, the de-democratization of Egypt and the country’s move toward military dictatorship will accelerate significantly with the implementation of these constitutional changes later this year. As Mohamed ElBaradei called these new amendments the “Arab Spring in reverse,” such amendments could easily result in al-Sisi being president for life.

Remarkable is how quickly Egypt’s “Deep State” has put an end to dreams of the 2011 Arab Spring revolution. Today, there is basically no genuine opposition to al-Sisi’s presidency or the regime in Egypt. The junta that usurped power in the 2013 coup killed, arrested, disappeared, and tortured virtually all the influential Egyptians who were outspokenly opposed to military rule, often relying on terrorist designations and draconian legislation under the banner of defending national security.

Within this context, what in Egypt could possibly stand in the way of such “reforms” moving forward? Parliamentarians who belong to the “watered down opposition” made up of “largely ineffective secular and liberal parties” simply do not have the numbers to put up any significant resistance to the proposed constitutional changes. Notable, nonetheless, has been how some prominent Egyptian citizens, including the parliamentarian named Ahmed El Tantawi and independent lawyers, have been bold in voicing their opposition to, what they see as, al-Sisi’s attempts at a major power grab. Yet such Egyptians risk being handed prison sentences for challenging authorities when it comes to these reforms. Likewise, average citizens have also jeopardized their lives by taking to social media platforms and print newspapers to voice their opposition.

Regional Barometer

Egypt has served as a model for the Arab world, and it seems no different now as the broader region largely is moving in a direction akin to post-2013 Egypt.

Traditionally, Egypt has served as a model for the Arab world, and it seems no different now as the broader region largely is moving in a direction akin to post-2013 Egypt. As Gulf monarchs crack down on their countries’ dissidents, as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is re-accepted into the Arab world’s diplomatic fold, and while no Arab regime even criticizes the Sudanese government’s violence against unarmed demonstrators, it is evident that most Arab regimes are embracing the “authoritarian stability” model. Fearful of how Tunisia-like democratic revolutions have the potential to threaten the Middle East’s strongmen in the years ahead, Egypt is laying the legal groundwork for al-Sisi to remain president for life while working to prop up authoritarian and anti-Islamist political orders in other Arab states where grassroots movements still pose ideological threats to regimes that al-Sisi and other regional strongmen in countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates find unbearable.

Indeed, from the perspective of Egypt’s “Deep State,” the political openings of 2011 and 2012, which led to elections in some Arab states’ post-revolution periods, created an extremely dangerous situation that required resolution by the coup of 2013, as well as by new constitutional changes to reverse the 2011 revolution even further. Now, Egypt’s state is working to make the prospects for another non-violent, pro-democracy revolution even dimmer by further enshrining al-Sisi’s dictatorship while strengthening the Egyptian military’s influence in politics and civil affairs.