Constitutional amendments ahead in Egypt?

Gamal Essam El-Din , Wednesday 2 Jan 2019

Egyptian parliament
File photo: A general view of the Egyptian parliament during a working session in Cairo, Egypt (Photo: AP)

The year is expected to see significant political developments in Egypt. Several politicians and analysts have argued in recent weeks that a number of long-awaited reforms need to be passed in 2019. These, they argue, should come ahead of parliamentary elections in 2020 and presidential polls in 2022. 

Amr Hashem Rabie, an Al-Ahram political analyst, told Al-Ahram Weekly that there are “strong signals that Egypt’s 2014 constitution will be amended in 2019”. First, Rabie said, the Cairo Court of Urgent Matters is currently deliberating a case filed by a number of lawyers asking that parliament move to amend the constitution to allow the president to assume office for an unlimited period of time. Article 140 of the current constitution states that the president cannot run for more than two terms or eight years in office. They want to change this to be open-ended so that the president can be re-elected several times, Rabie explained.

Moreover, Rabie said, several politicians have suggested that Article 140 be amended to increase the presidential term from four years to six. “There is ongoing debate in official circles that the constitution should be amended in 2019 on the grounds that it was drafted to serve a short transitional period, and now it is high time to make it serve Egypt’s political ends in the long run.”

Osama Heikal, head of parliament’s Media and Culture Committee, told reporters that a number of constitutional amendments are urgently needed. “We have to amend Article 140 to give the president, and not the current president, Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi in particular, the chance to stay in office for a longer period so that he can have time to implement development programmes,” Heikal said, adding that the current four-year term is too short for any elected president to achieve any significant policies or introduce political reforms. “A term of four years is good for a country like America, a superpower with political stability and an economic powerhouse, but in Egypt the matter differs as the country is still badly in need of a long period of political stability and consistent economic reforms,” Heikal added.

Heikal, a former information minister and head of the Egyptian Media Production City, said other constitutional amendments are also needed. For example, he said the defunct Shura Council should be recreated to pave the way for the return of the bicameral system. “It was a big mistake that under leftist pressure the Constituent Assembly which drafted the 2014 constitution decided to revoke the old Shura Council,” Heikal said, adding that “a single parliament with an unprecedented number of 596 MPs like the current one has proved to be ineffective and rather toothless”.

On a similar note, Yasser Rizk, editor of the daily Al-Akhbar, said in an article, “The long-awaited year of political reform” published on 29 December, that the current 2014 constitution was drafted to serve just a transitional period. “Now that this period is over, Egypt is badly in need of an overhaul of the current constitution,” Rizk said, adding that out of a total of 247 articles, at least 15 per cent of the current 2014 constitution needs to be amended.

Article 140 should be changed to increase the presidential term to six years to allow President Al-Sisi to stay in office beyond 2022, Rizk said, adding that “in such a case, some may suggest that the amendments will be mainly tailored to serve President Al-Sisi. I say that this could be correct, but who said constitutions are drafted in a void or in isolation of the surrounding conditions?

“In 2022, if President Al-Sisi leaves office as the current constitution stipulates, Egypt could face an uncertain future,” Rizk warned, adding that Egypt could still face a dark future if the presidential term was increased to six years but only after 2022.

Rizk suggested that if constitutional amendments aiming to increase the presidential term to six years to allow Al-Sisi to stay in power beyond 2022 face resistance, a new article be drafted to state that at the end of 2022, an entity he called the Council for the Protection of the State and the (anti-Muslim Brotherhood) 30 June Revolution be created to take over for a transitional period of five years. This proposed council would be headed by Al-Sisi in his capacity as the founder of the 30 June political system, and includes as members the pre and post-Sisi presidents, speaker of parliament, prime minister, head of the Constitutional Court, minister of defence, chief of intelligence, and heads of the councils for women, media and human rights affairs, Rizk said.

This council will make sure that elected presidents after 2022 observe the principles of the 30 June 2013 Revolution and the 3 July statement which Al-Sisi delivered on the eve Mohamed Morsi was removed from office, Rizk stressed.

“This way we will make sure that Islamist fanatics and religious extremists will not be able to hold power in Egypt and that the post-Sisi presidents will be keen to observe the 30 June Revolution and its rejection of any religious rule, and that there will finally be a smooth transfer of power,” Rizk said.

Rizk proposed that Article 200 dealing with the role of the Armed Forces, be amended to state that one of its great objectives and roles will be to make sure that the principles of the 30 June Revolution are observed, and that it acts as the guardian over the implementation of the principles of the revolution as well as the 3 July statement.

Mustafa Bakri, an independent MP and editor of the weekly Al-Osbou, told the Weekly that “there is no doubt that the 2014 constitution was drafted under heavy international pressure and extortion by the Muslim Brotherhood.”

Bakri cited Article 140 as an example. He said it was drafted to stipulate that the president’s term in office does not exceed four years, simply because the 2012 constitution, drafted by the Muslim Brotherhood and its Salafi allies, included this stipulation, and also to send a message to the West, particularly the US, that Egypt is moving towards a liberal democracy in which an elected president with limited terms in office is a major feature. “Article 241 on transitional justice was also drafted mainly to open the door to some kind of reconciliation with the Brotherhood. This article also came as a result of outside pressure,” Bakri said, explaining that “it is clear that there will never be any kind of reconciliation with the Muslim Brotherhood and because this violates the principles of the 30 June Revolution which is an enemy of this group.”

On another note, Bakri argued that articles 18, 19, 21 and 23 stipulating that the government spend a certain percentage of the gross domestic product per annum on healthcare, education, university education and scientific research respectively should be revoked. “These articles proved to be unrealistic as the government has not been unable to implement them since 2014, a fact which made the constitution ink on paper,” Bakri said.

Shawki Al-Sayed, a former MP and an expert on constitutional law, argued in a recent article in Al-Ahram that “articles 146 and 147, which make it highly difficult to introduce major or minor cabinet reshuffles, should also be revoked,” adding that other articles preventing independent MPs from joining political parties also proved detrimental and should be reconsidered or annulled.

Rizk said the constitution’s articles regulating the performance of the media should also be reconsidered. “These articles which stipulate that three institutions be tasked with supervising the media and press in Egypt were equally detrimental,” Rizk said, believing they made the media and the press in Egypt too weak, so must be amended in favour of creating a single supervisory institution.

Bakri and Heikal agreed there was a need for the post of minister of information, revoked in 2013, be reinstated. The last four years showed that the post is necessary to respond to hostile foreign media attacks and coordinate with local press organisations on how to energise Egypt’s media, Bakri said.

“I think that the parliamentary majority should move in the coming period to form specialised groups which will be taking charge of amending the constitution in 2019,” Rizk said.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 January, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Constitutional amendments ahead? 

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