Parliament advances constitutional amendments by overwhelming majority, opposition speaks out

Egypt’s House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly on Thursday to approve, in principle, a set of constitutional amendments that would allow President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to extend his term in office until 2034. The amendments would also re-introduce an upper house of Parliament — the Senate — and change articles relating to the legislature, the judiciary, the media and the Armed Forces.

During the plenary session, Parliament speaker Ali Abdel Aal stated that 485 out of 596 lawmakers approved the amendments, but did not refer to the number of votes against them.

Mada Masr tallied them as 16: Ahmed al-Bardisi, Ahmed al-Sharqawi, Samir Ghattas, Ahmed Tantawi, Haitham al-Hariri,  Mostafa Kamal Eddin Hussein, Gamal al-Sharif, Diab al-Din Dawoud, Mohamed al-Atmani, Talaat Khalil, Nadia Henry, Fayza Mahmoud, Sayed Abdel Aal, Mohamed Abdel Ghany, Reda al-Beltagy and Salah Abdel Badie. One MP, Abdel Aaty Mostafa, abstained.

Parliament will now refer the proposed amendments and the General Committee’s report to its Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee. The latter will, in turn, prepare a report to be presented back to Parliament, detailing its examination of the proposed amendments, including any revisions to the draft, within 60 days.

During the session, Abdel Aal laid out the the next steps in detail: The Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee will open the door to receive comments and proposals from institutions and citizens for one month. Any proposals should be limited to the articles approved by the council. Following that, two weeks of dialogue sessions will be held with people from various fields, including politics, law, the judiciary, higher education as well as trade unions and syndicates. The committee will then deliberate on the drafting of the articles for one week and prepare a report for the following one.

The amendments will then be put to a national referendum, which is expected to take place before the start of Ramadan in early May.

The parliamentary discussion: MPs outline their positions

A day earlier, Abdel Aal opened the floor for dialogue around the amendments, which he described as “historic.” Most MPs, across different parliamentary bodies, parties and blocs, expressed their approval of the amendments, with only a few — most of whom members of the 25/30 Alliance or independents — voicing their opposition to them.

Abdel Aal pledged to open a “sophisticated and open” discussion on the amendments that would include different demographics and segments of society, saying, “I will allow everyone to express their point of view with an open heart, conscious mind and a friendly ear to understand.” Before handing over the floor, he allotted three minutes to the heads of parliamentary bodies and two minutes for other MPs to speak.

MP Abdel Hady al-Qasabi, head of the state-allied Alliance to Support Egypt coalition, who submitted the proposal to parliament earlier this month, said, “President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi was able to restore Egypt’s prestige in Arab, African and international circles, and we want him to stay for a long enough period to be able to reinforce the country’s stability.”

The Wafd Party agreed to the amendments in principle, said MP Hani Abaza, who added that Egypt was a “semi-state” when Sisi came to power and that the president worked tirelessly to overcome the problems the country was suffering from. “There was no education, no healthcare and no infrastructure. He worked to fix the pillars of the state to achieve the Egyptian state that we aspire to be.”

The Salafi Nour Party approved the amendments in part, according to their MP, Ahmed Khalil. He said the party rejects the amendment regarding the judiciary as it “blurs the separation of powers.” Khalil also said his party rejects amendments that describe Egypt as a civil state, explaining, “We reject secularism and theocracy. We only believe in a modern, democratic state under Article 2 of the Constitution [which states that the principles of Islamic Sharia are the principle source of legislation.]”

MP Ayman Abul Ela, head of the parliamentary committee of the Free Egyptians Party, also said his party agrees with the amendments. In a message directed to the “opposition,” Abul Ela said, “Sisi tackled problems at their root, education and health and otherwise, which have long been neglected. Why should I deprive Egypt of him?”

Meanwhile, MP Ahmad Tantawi, a member of the largely oppositional 25/30 Alliance, strongly rejected the amendments, calling them “unconstitutional” and “a setback that is clearly tailored to suit a certain individual, whose name we won’t mention.”

“We are returning to what looks like the Middle Ages,” he added.

“The amendments are not progress, they are a step backward,” independent MP Samir Ghattas said, adding that they represent an attack on the independence of the judiciary “and on all previous Egyptian constitutions.”

MP Ehab Mansour, head of the parliamentary committee of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, which opposes the amendments, nonetheless voiced support of the president. “We stand behind the president…regardless of me and my party’s disagreement with these amendments, I also respect the opinion of the majority.”

Opposition outside Parliament

On the same day that Parliament voted to advance the proposed amendments, a group of political parties, public figures and members of the committee that drafted the 2014 Constitution launched a petition to “categorically” oppose them.

“The citizens of Egypt who sign this statement believe that the essence of the proposed constitutional amendment process is to enable the current president to continue ruling for more than two presidential terms, in violation of the current Constitution, concentrating all powers in his hand and tightening the executive power’s grip on all judicial bodies, which means eliminating any possibility of peaceful transfer of power and freezing the project to build a modern democratic civil state,” the petition says.

So far, the petition’s 200 signatories include 10 political parties: the Egyptian Socialist Party, the Reform and Development Party, the Populist Socialist Alliance, the Dostour Party, the Karama Party, the Egyptian Democratic Party, the National Reconciliation Party, the Free Egypt Party, the Bread and Freedom Party and the General Congress Party.

Nine members of the committee that drafted the 2014 Constitution also signed onto the statement, as did dozens of citizens.

Meanwhile, 11 human rights organizations in Egypt “unequivocally” rejected the proposed amendments in a joint statement released on Tuesday.

“Not only do these individually tailored provisions flout fundamental legal precepts, they also upend the peaceful rotation of power championed by the Egyptian people in 2011 to prevent another decades-long dictatorial rule similar to that of former President Hosni Mubarak, toppled after 30 years in power,” the statement read.

The rights organizations added that the amendments “further eliminate all remnants of judicial independence” and “effectively serve to destroy the constitutional separation of powers, concentrating all authority into the president’s hands and solidifying his authoritarian rule.” The statement also criticized proposed changes to Article 204 that would sanction military trials of civilians.

The statement characterized the proposed amendments designating at least 25 percent of parliamentary seats to women and ensuring appropriate representation for Copts, youth, disabled people and Egyptian expatriates, as “the Egyptian government’s disingenuous attempt to sugarcoat its authoritarian power-grab.”

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch also blasted the amendments in a statement, saying they would “undermine judicial independence and expand executive powers that are already being abused.”

“These amendments reinforce efforts of President al-Sisi’s military-backed government to stifle people’s ability to challenge those in power,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Sisi’s government is encouraged by the continued silence of its allies, and if the US, UK and France want to avoid the destabilizing consequences of entrenching authoritarian rule in Egypt, they should act now.”

In January, over 1,000 of citizens, politicians, and public figures spoke out against the amendments in a petition, saying they were “shocked and angered” by calls to allow the president to remain in power after the conclusion of his second term in 2022.

A number of political activists and users on social media networks have launched a hashtag to campaign against the amendments, with calls circulating for voters to reject the amendments at the ballot if they are put to a public referendum, or to boycott the referendum altogether.

In a report published in December, Mada Masr spoke to sources in the president’s office, the General Intelligence Service (GIS) and Parliament who documented coordination to extend Sisi’s stay in office. According to the report, meetings had been held on a nearly daily basis at the GIS headquarters between intelligence officials and the president’s office in order to finalize the amendments and the date of the referendum through which they will be passed. The same sources told Mada Masr that Mahmoud al-Sisi, the president’s son — who currently holds a senior position within the GIS — is the person heading these meetings, under the supervision of GIS head Abbas Kamel, who took part in several of the meetings.

Security sources had conveyed to a senior political party leader, who spoke to Mada Masr at the time, that the security apparatus would not tolerate dissent on any scale regarding the amendments.


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