Rather predictably – as predictable as his bid for the presidency was after he led the 2013 coup – Egyptian President Abdelfattah al-Sisi has been in recent months airing trial balloons on amending the 2013 constitution (supposed to be, in theory at least, a consensual text that brings together a variety of political factions, even it excluded the Muslim Brotherhood and others) to allow himself to become, like his predecessors, a president for life. Cue the protests from his defenders that these are ill-advised initiatives by his over-eager fans; but of course even if Sisi may not be as daring as pushing for such changes now, he is certain to do so after he wins what was supposed to be his second and last term in the 2018 presidential elections. You can expect him to reluctantly answer the popular cry for him to serve his country, sacrificing himself (he had been looking forward to quiet retirement, etc.) as countless other dictators have done so before him, from Sisi's friend Vladimir Putin to his arch-enemy Recep Tayyep Erdogan.
Arguably, Egyptian constitutional principles have been eroded to such an extent under Sisi that this is simply making official a de facto state of affairs. The symbolism of the formal change, however, is serious, as could be legal repercussions that further enshrine today's state of emergency into the constitution. It would further push the regime's opponents – not all cuddly revolutionary types, to be sure – into a zero-sum logic and amplify the rationale that all hope is lost. Putting term limits on the presidency was, after all, one of the few political gains made among the generally meager returns of the Egyptian uprising. It offers, even from today's bleak prospects, the possibility of an eventual change in leadership that might prevent the ossification of the regime (see Algeria today, Egypt under Mubarak, etc.) This is why even mild-mannered critics of the current Egyptian regime who supported the 2013 coup and Sisi's presidential bid are aghast at this turn of events. The piece below, penned by the founder of the Social Democratic Party, is a case in point.
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Amending the Constitution Is a Novel Egyptian Disaster
Mohammed Abou al-Ghar, al-Masri al-Youm, 21 August 2017
We have heard the voices of regime mouthpieces – who have personally benefited from the current regime in the form of high-level positions and other privileges – calling for the constitution to be amended. The reason? To extend the president’s term, possibly indefinitely. I would like to remind you that since 1952, none of Egypt’s previous presidents have voluntarily left office. Mohammed Naguib was deposed in a coup, Abdel Nasser died after 18 years in power, Sadat was assassinated after 11 years in office, Mubarak was overthrown by revolution after 29 years of rule, and Morsi was deposed by the people and the army after just a one year. So why would Sisi enter this vicious cycle? Is there some logic in his thinking?
Some say that under dictatorial rule, every president carries out unconstitutional and illegal measures, such that if he ever leaves office, he and his cronies would face trial and retribution. Therefore, in such systems, the president only leaves by force or in death.
The regime’s henchmen are the beneficiaries of this spectacle. They are the ones who adorn any president who undermines the constitution. Then they demand that he remain in office for life, not out of love for him, but out of love for themselves and their positions. Now, are there legal or popular challenges and problems to amending the constitution?
- Lawmakers must remember what happened in the days of Mubarak when parliament tried to make controversial amendments to the constitution. That was after all one of the reasons for the end of Mubarak’s rule. They must, no doubt, be cautious. Indeed, the skill, experience and intelligence of Fathi Sorour, the distinguished university professor and the brilliant lawyer, has no equal in the current parliamentary leadership.
- The world has completely changed in the 21st century. It is true that terrorism in the Middle East has given the Egyptian regime broad freedom to act with US, European, Gulf, and Israeli support, but these things do not last forever. Moreover, such support bears a high cost that is now being paid for by Egypt’s freedom to make its own decision. The time will come when the president will no longer be able to pay that price; the support will dry up, and with massive foreign and domestic debts, the situation will be an impossible one unless Egypt can maintain political cohesion and keep its people satisfied. The amendments will cause a new rift that will transform Tiran and Sanafir into a profound gulf, with the people on one side and the President on the other.
- Extending the president’s first term is legally impossible both in form and substance. The term is a legally binding contract between two parties – the people elected Sisi for 4 years, no more, no less. That cannot be changed with a law or a referendum or anything else, and any attempts at a referendum would be crazy.
- The constitution contains an article that clearly states that it is not permissible to change the articles pertaining to election of the president. The wisdom behind that article is well-established, because all of Egypt’s former presidents wanted to rule for life. Any change to this article would have the intention of keeping the president in office indefinitely. Egyptians want to see the day where a former president ends his term and leaves office: they want to experience rotation of power.
- Any planned constitutional amendments that have received approval to appear on a constitutional referendum must first present a referendum to abolish the constitution, as this article cannot be amended. Abolishing the Constitution would also mean abolishing the legitimacy of June 30, the very basis on which the current president was elected. Then we would write a new constitution to the current leadership’s liking before presenting it for referendum once again. Are you ready for two referendums in such a short time, followed by presidential elections, just to consolidate the president’s stay in office?
- Is the Egyptian regime capable of holding an honest referendum that gives everyone in the media the chance to speak their mind and then follow that up with presidential elections with the same level of transparency? Of course not. The media is almost completely nationalized and will not allow any competitor the opportunity to express his opinion or explain his point of view; it would just as soon assassinate him as let an opposition voice speak freely.
- The regime believes itself to be quite strong, and in fact it is quite strong with considerable foreign aid, but there are severe internal weaknesses, including terrorism and the serious erosion of the economy caused by misguided policies and an unwillingness to listen to any other point of view, and due to the imprisonment of thousands, the shredding of the constitution and the law, chaos, and corruption. In such circumstances, we must reach an understanding with the people and agree upon a future policy in order to overcome our terrible problems, and not by drafting dangerous constitutional amendments that paralyze the country and put us in the middle of yet another mess.
- Finally, I do not believe that this was [Speaker of Parliament Ali] Abdel Aal’s idea or that of his colleagues because when one of them brought it up not too long ago, he was told to shut up and be silent. Please be careful, Egypt has 21 million angry young men with no permanent or regular work.
Please think a little and wait until next time, there is no need to be so reckless. Leave well enough alone!
Rise up, Egyptian! Egypt always calls on you!