A final parliamentary vote on changing the 2014 constitution is expected on 14 April.
Following a vote on the 2017/2018 budget this week Parliament Speaker Ali Abdel-Aal told MPs that “our next sitting will be held on 14 April and I think all of you will be keen to attend the historic meeting”.
“It will be a very important plenary session and attendance is essential.”
A two-thirds majority of MPs in favour of the amendments is needed for them to pass. “Parliament took a provisional vote on 14 February and, in line with the constitution and parliamentary rules, a final vote on the report of the draft of the constitutional amendments must be held within two months,” Abdel-Moneim Al-Oleimi, independent MP and a member of parliament’s Legislative and Constitutional Affairs Committee, told Al-Ahram Weekly. A two-week consultative process on the amendments concluded on 28 March.
“This was the penultimate step and the Legislative and Constitutional Affairs Committee met this week to finalise a draft of the amendments which will be put before MPs,” said Al-Oleimi.
“If passed, the National Committee for Elections will be notified, and will invite citizens to vote on the amendments in a public referendum which we expect in the last week of April,” said Abdel-Aal.
The Legislative and Constitutional Affairs Committee held a meeting on 31 March to review the results of the consultations. Committee chair Bahaaeddin Abu Shokka revealed the meeting decided a 13-member sub-committee be formed to prepare a report on the comments and remarks expressed during the two-week debate by 3 April.
Abdel-Aal defended the proposed changes, arguing they will reinforce stability and move Egypt forward on the road to political reform and democratisation. Responding to questions raised by Mohamed Sami, head of the Karama (Dignity) Party during a hearing session on 27 March, Abdel-Aal swore that he had never acted under instructions from President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi.
“President Al-Sisi has no connection at all with these amendments. They came at the initiative of majority bloc MPs who believe that they are in the national interest.”
In response to criticisms levelled by Mohamed Anwar Esmat Al-Sadat, head of the Reform and Development Party, Abdel-Aal said allegations the amendments were pre-packaged were false.
“In this two-week dialogue we listened to the views of the minority opposition and the majority,” said Abdel-Aal. “We were keen that all political parties, particularly opposition forces, freely and openly express their views.”
He also insisted the debate on the amendments received ample media coverage.
“Parliamentary correspondents were allowed to attend the debate and report every word to the public,” said Abdel-Aal.
Replying to comments from Mohamed Farid Zahran, head of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, Abdel-Aal said: “I agree that writing a new constitution is not the task of parliament but the responsibility of a constituent assembly comprising representatives of all sectors of society. But what we are doing now is not writing a new constitution, we are simply amending some of its articles in line with Article 226 which gives the president and MPs this right.”
Abdel-Aal wondered why some people are still asking whether the constitution should be changed.
“To these people I say that the constitution is not a static document but one that should be amended whenever it is appropriate.”
“Some opposition figures insist that the main objective of the amendments is to increase the presidential term from four to six years. This is not true. The amendments mainly aim to introduce political reform,” said Abdel-Aal.
“When we compiled the first draft of the current 2014 constitution we were under heavy pressure. We had been given one month, and we were doing our job at a time of curfew and terrorist threats. We were working in reaction to events. The current constitution was one of necessity and reaction. It aimed to extinguish political fires and allow the country to regain stability as quickly as possible.
“To those who claim the amendments seek only to allow President Al-Sisi to stay in power until 2034, I say this is not true.
“The text of the amendment regarding presidential terms does not say anything like this, and it would be completely unwise for us to draft such a text. But let’s suppose that the amendment could be made to serve the president as some like to claim. Is that such a bad thing? And would we be the first country to do it?
“Haven’t we seen many states, some of them members of the UN Security Council, amend their constitutions to increase the presidential term? We also want to have a strong president who can deliver stability and development. And it is up to President Al-Sisi to decide whether he wants to run. When we [the 50-member constituent assembly] took charge of drafting the current constitution in 2013 we all wanted a six-year presidential term. It was impossible to do so at that time and we opted for four years as a temporary step thinking that when the country recovers stability we should be back to the six-year limit.
“And why should I tell anybody not to run? The amendment does not say that certain figures will be banned from standing in presidential elections, or that any president can be allowed to run forever and without term limits. The amendment simply states the term-limit be increased to six years so that an elected president, any president, can implement his political programmes. Presidential elections in Egypt are held in a competitive environment and with international monitoring.”
In response to concerns raised by political science professor Mustafa Kamel Al-Sayed, Abdel-Aal said: “The transitional article does not mean President Al-Sisi can stay in power forever or that we will return to inherited power scenarios.
“President Al-Sisi did not want to run for president in 2014. He did so only after representatives of political forces and civil society organisations beseeched him to stand. He did so out of his sense of duty, and in a very difficult period, when economic conditions were so bad Egypt was on the verge of bankruptcy.
Someone who takes on such a job in these difficult circumstances will not want to stay in power for 20 or 30 years.
“In 2013 Egypt was classified as a failing state. Now we are moving on the right path and building a democratic nation.
“The current amendments do not offer a final solution to Egypt’s political problems. After some time we might decide to amend another group of articles, or even write a new constitution.”
Abu Shokka echoed Abdel-Aal’s point about not working to instruction. “We do not have pre-packaged amendments and when we write the final drafts we will defer only to God and the interests of our country,” he said.
Abdel-Hadi Al-Qasabi, head of parliament’s majority Support Egypt bloc which submitted the amendments on 3 February, accused political forces which refused to join the dialogue, or have urged people to protest against the changes, of treason.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 April, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Preparing the ground