The head of Egypt’s National Elections Authority (NEA) announced on Wednesday that a national referendum on amendments to the Constitution will be held this weekend, a mere three days after Parliament voted to approve the changes.
The three-day voting window for Egyptians inside the country will take place on April 20, 21 and 22, while the window for expatriates opens one day earlier, with voting taking place on April 19, 20 and 21.
The referendum is the final major step in a process that officially began in February, when the proposed changes were first introduced in Parliament. Among the most controversial amendments are changes that could allow President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to stay in power until 2030, diminish the independence of the judiciary and grant the military unprecedented powers.
Parliament overwhelmingly voted to pass the amendments on Tuesday, with 531 MPs voting in favor of the changes out of a total of 554 parliamentarians, with one abstention.
Before announcing the results of the parliamentary vote, parliamentary speaker Ali Abdel Aal praised the political leadership for “keeping its promise,” and called on Egyptians, particularly the youth, to vote in the referendum. Abdel Aal urged the NEA to attach the full text of the amendments to the ballots to inform voters of the amended articles.
The 22 MPs who rejected the amendments were: Akmal Qortam, Ihab Mansour, Fayza Mahmoud, Mohamed Abdel Ghany, Samir Ghattas, Gamal al-Sherif, Reda al-Beltagy, Mohamed Atta Selim, Hatham al-Hariry, Talaat Khalil, Abdel Hamid Kamal, Mostafa Kamal Eddin Hussein, Mohamed Salah Abdel Badie, Ahmed al-Sharqawy, Ilhamy Agina, Mohamed al-Etmani, Diaa Eddin Dawoud, Abul Maaty Mostafa, Ahmed Tantawy, Shedid Abu Hendia, Ahmed al-Bardisi, and Mohamed Fouad. MP Dina Abdel Aziz abstained.
The constitutional changes extend presidential terms from four to six years and allow for a maximum of two terms. On Sunday, the legislative committee also approved a special article (Article 241) that allows current president Abdel Fattal al-Sisi to retroactively extend his second-year term from four to six years, to end in 2024 instead of 2022, and allows him to run for an additional six year term, potentially extending his time in office until 2030. The initial proposed changes that Parliament voted to advance in February would have allowed Sisi to remain in office until 2034.
MP Ahmed Tantawy objected to extending presidential term limits, saying, “The constitutional amendments comprise a very dangerous text that extends the presidential term after 2024, which means the absence of judicial supervision over elections.” According to the 2014 Constitution, judicial supervision will end in 2024 and be replaced by the supervision of employees appointed by the NEA.
“We will go back to the era of beautiful elections,” the MP continued sarcastically.
“I don’t love the president and I don’t trust his performance,” Tantawy added, before being attacked by other MPs during the debate session. Following his remarks, Abdel Aal criticized the MP, saying, “This is not acceptable. Be objective,” and ordered the removal of his statements from the session’s notes.
A number of last-minute changes to the amendments related to the judiciary were also finalized during Tuesday’s parliamentary debate, including keeping the independent budgets for each judicial authority separate. The Legislative Committee had put forward a different article on Sunday that would grant “judicial authorities and bodies one independent budget, which is distributed among them by [the Supreme Council of Judicial Bodies].”
Parliament also walked back a move to curtail the powers of the State Council in reviewing contracts and bills, but did retain changes that cancel the State Council’s powers to draft laws and limit its remit to review bills referred by the government. According to a prominent MP of the Support Egypt Alliance, who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, the last-minute changes came as a result of pressure from the judiciary on Parliament, with MPs also trying to prevent any potential legal challenges against the amendments.
The amendments also include an unprecedented change to the defined role of the Armed Forces in the country, making it responsible for “preserving democracy and the Constitution, protecting the basic principles of the state and its civilian nature, and protecting people’s rights and individual freedoms.”
Abdel Aal said the change does not force the military into politics, adding that the Armed Forces are professional, patriotic and aware of their role.
The parliamentary speaker also stressed that the “civilian nature” of the state does not imply that it is secular nor religious, directing his comments to Ahmed Khalil, the head of the Salafi Nour Party in Parliament, who had previously stated his party’s rejection of the amendments over the phrase. Ultimately, however, the Nour Party ended up reversing their position and voting for the amendments.
The Tagammu Party also voted for the amendments, with the head of the party, MP Sayed Abdel Aal, saying it was his party that suggested the text to extend the current presidential term to two years, and allow the president to run for a third term.
For its part, the Egyptian Democratic Party maintained its opposition to the amendments, as did the head of Conservative Party Akmal Qortam, who had previously withdrawn from the initial voting on the amendments in February.
Meanwhile, MP Mostafa Kamal Hussein expressed concern over the articles related to the judiciary, saying they contradict the principle of the separation of powers. The amendments regarding the judiciary include expanding the powers of the president in appointing the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court, the prosecutor general, as well as the heads of the judicial bodies. A Supreme Judiciary Council will also be established and headed by the president.
During the discussions, MP Haitham al-Hariri, of the 25-30 Alliance, which rejected the amendments, said that he would have voted for the changes if they favored the interests of Egyptians. “I speak to your conscience,” he said. “We are drafting the future of that country and our children and grandchildren today.” For his part, MP Hussein Abu Hendia stressed his rejection to the amendments based on his “respect for the principle of separation of powers, and due to the involvement of the military into politics.”
A campaign named “Batel,” which means “null and void” in Arabic, was launched last week to oppose the amendments. By Batel’s estimation, they have amassed 250,000 signatures to date. On Monday night, Internet service providers in Egypt blocked over 34,000 internet domains in an apparent bid to stamp out the campaign, online censorship monitoring group NetBlocks told Mada Masr on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Egypt has seen widespread campaigning pushing for people to vote for the amendments, with prolific television ads and billboards appearing in streets nationwide. Cafe and kiosk owners in Cairo previously told Mada Masr that they had been coerced by security forces to not only hang up campaign ads in support of the amendments, but to cover their costs as well.