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Thursday, 27 June 2019

Egypt: Towards the referendum

This week, parliament took the long-awaited step of voting in favour of the proposed constitutional amendments, paving the way for a public referendum

Gamal Essam El-Din , Friday 19 Apr 2019
Parliament
Egyptian Parliament (Photo: Reuters)
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After a lengthy debate on Tuesday, Egypt’s parliament — the House of Representatives — voted 531 to 22, with one abstention in favour of proposed amendments to Egypt’s 2014 constitution.

A public referendum is expected next week. If the amendments receive a “yes” vote, they will go into effect immediately. An affirmative vote will allow President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi to run for office until 2030.

This will be done by extending his current term by two years — or from 2022 to 2024 — after which he will get the opportunity to run for president for another six-year term that will end in 2030.

Parliament Speaker Ali Abdel-Aal said the current constitutional amendments will not be the last.

“All I can say is that Egypt will need to write a new constitution within the next five or 10 years in order to remain in step with changing developments and because a large section of the public opinion still believes that the current 2014 constitution is transitional and that a new one should be drafted instead.”

The approval in parliament came after more than two months of debate.

MPs and public opinion in general showed a particular interest in the change of Article 140 which increases the presidential term from four to six years.

MPs were divided into roughly three groups on how Article 140 should be drafted. One group led by the parliamentary majority coalition “Support Egypt”, which submitted the amendments on 3 February, agreed that President Al-Sisi’s current term in office, which ends in 2022, be extended by two years to 2024, and then be allowed another six-year term which will end in 2030.

The amendment received the support of some opposition parties, notably the leftist Tagammu Party.

Another group of MPs, also affiliated with Support Egypt, favoured an amendment which states that when President Al-Sisi’s current term ends as planned in 2022, he should be allowed to run for two additional six-year terms that will end in 2034.

A third group of MPs, mostly affiliated with the opposition leftist 25-30 group, proposed that the presidential term should be increased from four to just five years.

In this case, the current term of Al-Sisi would be increased by one year, or from 2022 to 2023. After that he would be allowed to run for another five years ending in 2028.

This group of MPs argues that the term of the president in office should be five years, just like parliament, which is elected every five years. In this way legislative and presidential elections would be held in one year.

The current term of Egypt’s parliament will end next year (2019/2020), and the new parliament, which will be elected next year, will sit until 2025. During this year both parliamentary and presidential elections can be held.

At the end, Speaker Abdel-Aal, who led the final debate in the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee on Monday, indicated that he and the majority of MPs had rejected a proposal that would allow President Al-Sisi to run for office until 2034.

“There was much division among MPs on this point, and we rejected the proposal of some that the sitting president be allowed to run for another two terms, ending on 2034.

“We chose a middle of the road option that will allow the sitting president to remain in office until 2024, and then he will be allowed to run for another six years,” Abdel-Aal said, indicating that “in this way, I can say that the amended constitution still does not lead to any kind of inheritance of power or perpetuation of rule.

“I mean that the constitution still maintains the two-term limit and prevents elected presidents from staying in power forever,” Abdel-Aal said. The final draft now stipulates that the president can be elected for six (instead of four) years, and cannot remain in office for more than two consecutive terms.

A new transitional article was also drafted, stipulating that the current presidential term will end in 2024 (instead of 2022), and that the sitting president will be allowed to run for an additional six-year term.

A report prepared by parliament’s Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee also said the approval to increase the presidential term to six years came after most MPs agreed that a four-year term has no longer become a viable and realistic option for Egypt.

“After a long period of political chaos, two dramatic revolutions, and amid a lot of turmoil in the region, Egypt now needs a long period of stability in which it can revitalise the economy and achieve sustainable development plans,” the report said, adding that “a review of political conditions across the world shows that many countries such as France, Algeria, Tunisia and Croatia have five-year presidential terms, while others such as Russia, Mexico, Venezuela and the Philippines have six-year presidential terms.”

According to the report, President Al-Sisi has no connection in any way with the proposed amendments. “The president did not have a hand anyway in proposing or drafting these amendments, but the committee makes it clear that the president came to power amid very tough conditions, and so most MPs, in appreciation of his historical role in recovering Egypt’s stability, decided to extend his term in order to be able to achieve his development programmes, particularly as Egypt is in bad need, for as long as possible, of a period of political and institutional stability.”

Haitham Al-Hariri, a leftist MP from Alexandria, told the plenary meeting on Tuesday that “President Al-Sisi might have had no connection with this matter, but the amendments were clearly tailored to serve him.” Al-Hariri warned that “the amendments could have a catastrophic effect in the future.”

Emad Gad, a political analyst and an independent MP, told Al-Ahram Weekly that “Egypt needs a long period of internal stability, and the amendments come to serve this purpose.

“I think that the majority of citizens view the amendments in this way, and for this reason we have not seen any kind of serious rejection or mass protests against these amendments in any way,” said Gad, adding that “five or six years ago it would be unthinkable to draft such amendments without protests.”

“But right now, and as we see a volatile region everywhere around us, we also see that Egypt is moving forward on the road of internal stability and economic progress and the amendments help boost this stability in the long run,” Gad said, adding that judging by his massive popularity and if he decides to run again in 2026, President Al-Sisi is sure to win and stay in office until 2030.

Ahmed Al-Sigini, head of parliament’s Local Administration Committee, told the Weekly that he expects that the majority of citizens will vote “yes” to the amendments.

“Citizens understand these amendments are aimed at reinforcing stability in Egypt and that President Al-Sisi has become a symbol of this stability, and so I think that no less than 93 per cent of voters will say yes to the amendments.”

The amendments are expected to go to a public referendum next week. Most sources say Egyptians abroad will go to the polls on 20 and 21 April and that a three-day referendum will be held, beginning on Monday 22 April.

At the end of the debate on Tuesday evening, Abdel-Aal said “it is now up to the people to give the final word on the amendments.

“We as MPs have done our part of the job and now it is up to the people to decide on these amendments, and I am sure that all Egyptians will be keen to participate in the referendum because this is something directly intended to improve the future of their country,” Abdel-Aal said.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 April, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Towards the referendum 

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