The left-leaning 25-30 parliamentary bloc was the most vociferous opposition group opposed to proposed changes to the constitution and its ire was directed mainly at amendments increasing the presidential term from four to six years
Ahmed Al-Tantawi, a member of the bloc, said the proposals were “a setback, and clearly tailored to benefit a figure whose name we all know”.
Speaker Ali Abdel-Aal insisted that the amendments were not designed to benefit an individual but aimed to reform the political system.
“The amendments retain the two-term limit but increase presidential terms from four to six years to give the incumbent — any president — the chance to implement his programme,” said Abdel-Aal.
Independent MP Samir Ghattas voiced concern that “the amendments are a throwback to the period pre-2011 and represent an assault on the sovereignty of the judiciary.”
Ghattas argued the proposals violate Article 226 of the constitution which stipulates that changes to the length of the presidential term must be accompanied by “democratic guarantees”.
“The amendments do not bring any democratic guarantees, they are a setback,” said Ghattas. “The constitution should actually be amended so Egypt’s political system becomes a parliamentary one in which power lies in the hands of an elected prime minister while the president becomes a symbolic figure.”
Ihab Mansour, spokesperson of the Egyptian Socialist Democratic Party, said the current constitution was approved by 98 per cent of voters who turned out in 2014. “The constitution is barely four years old and many of its articles have not yet been implemented. It is far too early to judge whether or not it needs to be changed,” he said.
Abdel-Aal responded by saying the French constitution which was passed in 1958 had been amended in 1960.
Tagammu Party’s Sayed Abdel-Aal also argued that “it is too early for the current constitution to be amended given many of its articles have yet to be applied.”
He also said his party objected to proposals to establish a second house, claiming the Senate will be redundant.
Conservatives Party MP Talaat Khalil warned “the amendments send a very negative message to the Egyptian people who twice rose up in order to secure the principle of rotation of power.”
Khalil wondered openly whether the MPs who submitted the amendments “consulted with the president with their constituents and members of the judiciary” before submitting their proposals.
Abdel-Aal insisted the changes “do not violate the principle of the rotation of power since they still set a limit on presidential terms”.
“It will be up to President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi to decide whether he wants to stand again under the new constitution when his current term ends in 2022,” said the speaker.
Tagammu MP Abdel-Hamid Kamal characterised the amendments as “an assault on the political gains made by the 25 January and 30 June revolutions”.
Kamal demanded Speaker Abdel-Aal make public the names of the 155 MPs who submitted the amendments, voicing the suspicion the changes had actually been drafted by “some state authority” rather than the MPs who lent their names to the motion.
Independent MP and a constitutional law professor Salah Abdel-Badie claimed the amendments undermined parliament by “giving new powers to the president at the expense of MPs.
“I hope that President Al-Sisi will reject these proposals and thereby set a good example of what respect for the rotation of power means,” he said.
Abdel-Aal responded by arguing the changes do not increase presidential prerogatives but “aim to strengthen parliament by creating an upper house and widening the scope of representation of women and other sectors”.
He reiterated the argument that “all constitutions can be amended and changed”.
“It has happened in France and the US, and there is no reason why Egypt’s constitution should be an exception.”
Nasserist MP Diaaeddin Dawoud accused those who framed the amendments of attempting to “usurp power and disrupt the democratic march of Egypt”.
Haitham Al-Hariri, leader of the 25-30 group, stressed the amendments will allow President Al-Sisi to remain in power for two additional six-year terms after his current, second four-year term ends 2022. “This is the real objective of the amendments, and it is an assault on Egypt’s democratisation process,” he said.
The 25-30 group also says the 25 per cent quota of seats for female candidates subverts the principle of equality and argues that establishing a second chamber is simply an attempt to resurrect the disbanded Shura Council, a costly house that the Mubarak regime used to manipulate parliament and control the media.
Mohamed Saad Badrawi, spokesperson of the National Movement Party, suggested that parliament ask President Al-Sisi to whether or not he approves of attempts to extend the presidential term from four to six years.
In response, Speaker Abdel-Aal said “it is parliament which has taken the initiative to amend the constitution and President Al-Sisi has no connection with the proposed amendments.”
“Article 226 allows the president to request changes to the constitution but he has not done so. In 2022, when President Al-Sisi’s term in office expires, it will be his decision whether to run again in line with the new amendments,” said Abdel-Aal.
Majority leader Abdel-Hadi Al-Qasabi said the 155 MPs who submitted the amendments did so because they love their country and want to see it stable.
“President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi has restored Egypt’s prestige in Arab, international and African circles and we want him to stay to reinforce the country’s stability,” said Al-Qasabi.
Ahmed Khalil, spokesperson of the Salafist Nour Party, said his party “approves some of the amendments but we object to changes which describe Egypt as a civilian state, allocate 25 per cent of seats in parliament to women and affect the independence of the judiciary”.
Hala Abul-Saad, spokesperson of the Conservatives Party, said “constitutions should not be viewed as being set in stone but be open to change as experience demands.”
Abul-Saad’s support of the proposed amendments places her at loggerheads with her party.
Conservatives Party leader Akmal Qortam was forced to withdraw from the chamber after facing a barage of heckling from majority MPs.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 February, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Opposition says no