Egypt awaits constitutional changes

Gamal Essam El-Din , Sunday 29 Dec 2019

April’s constitutional amendments have yet to invigorate political life


On 23 April Egypt’s National Committee for Elections announced that 23.4 million — 88 per cent of registered voters — had voted in favour of amendments to the 2014 constitution in the three-day referendum held from 20 to 22 April.

The yes vote extended the term of incumbent President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi by two years, from 2022 to 2024. It also allowed President Al-Sisi to stand in 2024 for another — and final — presidential term, meaning he could remain in office until 2030.

Abdel-Hadi Al-Qasabi, the leader of the Support Egypt coalition which drafted the amendments, insisted the extension of the presidential term and one-off move to allow President Al-Sisi a third term, would reinforce stability.

“In a volatile region we see President Al-Sisi as a symbol of stability and economic success and so we decided to give him enough time to follow through on his development programmes. Development is, after all, an urgent goal for a country with a population that has been increasing by two million every year.”

Alexandrian MP Haitham Al-Hariri told Al-Ahram Weekly that by allowing President Al-Sisi to potentially remain in power for 16 years — 2014 to 2030 — the amendments could have a catastrophic political effect.

“Experience has shown that allowing any president to remain in power for such a long time stifles political life and undermines the principle of rotation of power,” said Al-Hariri.

But according to Al-Qasabi, “President Al-Sisi may choose not to stand in 2024.” He urged political parties to start thinking now about potential presidential candidates four years hence.

Yasser Rizk, chairman of the state-owned Akhbar Al-Youm press organisation, thinks it unlikely political parties will be able to field convincing presidential candidates in 2024.

There are three possible scenarios, Rizk said in a recent TV interview. Either President Al-Sisi runs in 2024, which is a big possibility, particularly if no credible candidates have emerged between now and the poll, or he decides not to contest the election and instead selects a candidate to succeed him. A third possibility is that a public figure might contest the election, but for this to happen political parties need to begin now to prepare for the 2024 poll.

Rizk also argued that now “Egypt has restored stability, political reform has become a necessity” and “political reform is necessary to secure the future of political parties and entrench the principle of rotation of power.”

On 7 November — during a celebration to mark the birth of the Prophet Mohamed — President Al-Sisi revealed that he tried in 2014 to persuade his predecessor, interim president Adli Mansour, to stand but Mansour refused.

Changes to the constitution also allowed for the return of the post of the vice president. Article 150 was amended to allow the president to name one or more vice presidents, and Article 160 changed to specify that should circumstances arise that prevent the president from fulfilling his duties he will be replaced by a vice president or, should there not be one, the prime minister.

Article 160, though, strictly limits the role of any vice president.It states that if he/she takes office, he/she will not be entitled to amend the constitution, dissolve the House of Representatives or Senate, dismiss the government or stand as a presidential candidate in any future poll.

Seven months on from the amendments and President Al-Sisi has not yet named a vice president. Nor do analysts expect him to do so anytime soon.

MP and political analyst Samir Ghattas says the vice president post is essentially that of “a presidential aide without any significant powers”.

The earliest date Ghattas thinks one might be appointed is 2024, just ahead of the presidential poll.

The constitutional amendments specified that Egypt should have a second chamber, to be called the Senate. Although it has limited legislative and supervisory powers, many hope the new house can help in creating a more vibrant political life.

Al-Qasabi says the Support Egypt coalition has already drafted a law regulating the Senate.

“It states that two thirds of the 240 members will be elected and a third appointed,” said Al-Qasabi. He also expressed hopes that elections for the Senate can be held in November 2020 and that the house will allow the opposition to have a stronger voice.

Changes to the constitution also reduce the number of elected MPs in the House of Representatives from 596 to 450, with 25 per cent of seats (112) to be reserved for women.

Ghattas is keeping his fingers crossed the next parliament will be more forceful than the current one.

“If the next parliament simply replicates the current one it will be another blow to the country’s political life,” he says.

Al-Qasabi believes next year’s elections for the House and Senate will widen political participation and urge “political parties to begin preparing for elections now since they will determine the political and parliamentary landscape of Egypt for next five years”.

Parliament Speaker Ali Abdel-Aal said on 1 October that a batch of government-drafted political laws translating April’s constitutional amendments into facts on the ground will be discussed by MPs in parliament’s current legislative season.

“We will discuss laws on the House, the Senate and local councils after they have been subjected to a national dialogue and I hope they will usher in a new political era,” said Abdel-Aal.

The constitutional amendments entailed significant changes to the judiciary and Armed Forces. In its fourth legislative cycle, which ended in July, parliament passed legislation on the formation of judicial authorities, the State Council and the selection of the prosecutor-general and the chairman of the Supreme Constitutional Court. In line with amended Article 234, MPs passed a law mandating the president to name the minister of defence, conditional on the approval of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). They also approved legislation specifying cases in which civilians can face trial before military courts.

Political analyst Amr Hashim Rabie estimates that only a quarter of the constitutional amendments passed in April’s referendum have been implemented.

“We will have a fuller picture by the end of 2020, when we will be able to judge whether Egypt’s political life is moving forward or retreating,” says Rabie.

Speaker Abdel-Aal said the amendments are the first step in promulgating a new constitution.

“The majority believe that in five years’ time Egypt will need a new constitution that takes account of political and economic changes,” argued Abdel-Aal.

*A version of this article appears in print in the  26 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly. 

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