A former army chief, Abdelfattah el-Sisi stormed to the presidency at the 2014 polls winning 96.9 percent of the vote, a year after having led the military in ousting Islamist President Mohamed Morsi. Sisi was reelected in 2018, sweeping the poll with 97 percent of the ballots.
In early 2018, some Egyptian policymakers and media outlets began discussing the importance of constitutional amendments. While these calls initially focused on presidential terms limits, on February 3, 2019, the pro-government parliamentary bloc known as Support Egypt, submitted a broader package of draft constitutional amendments to the Speaker of the House of Representatives. This proposal was then reviewed for compliance with the constitution and the House’s bylaws and voted on by the General Committee on February 5. After a 10-week debate, parliament’s Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee approved the final draft of proposed amendments. The draft, formulated by a seven-member subcommittee, was finalised then approved overwhelmingly by the 485 lawmakers in the 596-seat chamber on 16 April and by the public in a three-day national referendum on 19-22 April.
Sisi has been very careful not to publicly comment on the amendments, saying only that he would abide by the “will of the [Egyptian] people.”
Parliament speaker Ali Abdelaal has said that the amendments were a parliamentary initiative and that Sisi may not even choose to run again.
“This suggestion came from the representatives of the people in gratitude for the historic role played by the president,” the legislative committee report said.
The legislative committee acknowledged some opposition to the amendments from members of the judiciary and two non-governmental organizations. Just 22 members of parliament voted against the amendments.
Salah Hasb-Allah, the Parliamentarian Spokesperson, told Majalla that it was necessary to amend the Egyptian constitution at this time because the constitution was shaped at time when Egypt had just experienced “the bitter rule of the Muslim Brotherhood that fell in the June 30 revolution and Egypt needed to develop a constitution suitable for the climate at the time.”
“I would like to emphasise the constitution is not a sacred text and when the political climate changes, it should change accordingly,” he explained, adding that the new amendments have longevity as they are being made under “normal conditions”.
Abdelaal has said the constitutional amendments will not be the last in Egypt. “I think we will need to write a completely new constitution within the next 10 years,” he said, indicating that the subcommittee responsible for releasing the final draft was keen that it was in line with internationally recognised constitutional principles.
According to Egypt's current constitution, which was adopted six months before Sisi was first elected, this term should be his last as the charter says that the president serves four-year terms and can only be re-elected once.
Under the new changes, the presidential term will become six years. This is the most significant of the amendments although it technically maintains the two-term cap stipulated in the current charter. However, Article 241 outlines a transitional arrangement specific to Sisi which extends his current second four-year term by two years and allows him to stand for another six-year term in 2024. These sweeping constitutional changes could keep the president in power until 2030.
Speaking to Khaled Saleh, the editor-in-chief of the Egyptian daily Youm 7, Parliament Speaker Abdelaal said that the amended presidential term was one of the most important articles discussed by the lawmakers. “We considered it as one of the main articles to maintain political stability.”
He added that “we asked ourselves: does the constitution's period of four years in presidency achieves the country’s stability? The answer was no.” Abdel Aal explained that the presidency terms in other countries are being reviewed, and have been expanded from five to seven years in several countries. He noted that Egypt needs longer presidency terms for the sake of its economic plans.
The amendments also permit the appointment one or more vice-presidents - a post that was removed following the adoption of the 2012 constitution.
The military in Egypt is in change of major infrastructure projects and generals occupy key positions throughout the government. The amendments to article 200 declare the military the “guardian and protector” of the Egyptian state and further enshrine the authority of the Armed Forces in maintaining democracy, the constitution and the civil nature of the state, while also granting military courts wider jurisdiction in trying civilians.
The amendment to article 234 would meanwhile enshrine the role of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in approving the minister of defence's appointment. The article had been set to expire at the end of Sisi's second term.
According to Abdelaal, the amendments do not in any way push the Armed Forces into politics. “The articles only state that the main role of the Armed Forces is to protect the state and its authorities, and that civilians will face trial before military courts only in crimes related to assaulting its establishments, and that this is the norm in all countries of the world,” Abdel-Aal said.
The amendments empower the president to appoint the heads of various judicial bodies and the prosecutor-general from a pool of senior candidates pre-selected by the judiciary and to chair a Supreme Council for Judicial Bodies and Entities. They also put him at the head of a new council, presiding over judicial affairs.
Commenting on these changes, Abdel-Aal said they do not violate the independence of the judiciary or infringe upon its powers. “It gives the president the right to appoint heads of judicial authority only upon the nomination of its members and their general assemblies,” Abdel-Aal said.
Various other provisions in the amendment proposal package include the re-establishment of a second parliamentary chamber, known as the Council of Senators. It would have 180 members, two-thirds elected by the public and the rest appointed by the president.
Abdel-Hadi Al-Qasabi, head of the Support Egypt coalition, told a meeting held by parliament's constitutional and legislative affairs committee on 14 April that the objective of the formation of a Senate is to widen the scope of political participation.
"The restoration of the bicameral system in Egypt shall give the opportunity for many sections of society to join parliamentary life, voice their opinions about public policies and help improve the legislating process," said Al-Qasabi.
A 51-page report prepared by the constitutional and legislative affairs committee also indicates that the formation of the Senate will allow high-profile public figures, experts and the intelligentsia to contribute to improving public policies and drafting legislation in Egypt.
"Many of these figures refrain from standing in parliamentary elections, but with the formation of the Senate and via appointment they will be able to have their voices heard and participate in shaping public policies," said the report.
The committee’s report said that they rejected the stipulation that the Senate should comprise 250 members, as originally drafted.
"This had been the case under the two regimes of Sadat and Mubarak," said the report, arguing that "this number would be too much at the present time.”
"The US Senate comprises just 100 members, while the House comprises 435 deputies, and so we think that the number of the Senate's members should not be too much, and that it should be at least 180, leaving the final say to the law which will be issued in this respect," said the report, also revealing that "the constitutional amendment stipulating that women will be allocated 25 percent of seats in the lower house will not apply to the Senate.”
THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
The amendments reduce the number of seats in the lower house, the House of Representatives, from 596 to 450. They also established a quota for women in the House of Representatives setting their representation at a minimum of 25 percent and greater representation for other minorities. There are currently 90 female MPs (12 percent) in parliament, the highest in Egypt’s history.