- According to reports from April 23, amendments to 14 articles within Egypt’s 2014 constitution were approved in a nationwide referendum, which was held between April 19-22. 88.8 percent of the eligible electorate voted in favor of the amendments. The referendum witnessed a turnout of 44.3 percent.
- This development is highly notable as it will extend President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi’s presidential term from four to six years as well as allow him to seek re-election for a third term. This will allow the president to further entrench himself within the country’s political apparatus.
- The constitutional amendments will significantly expand presidential powers, allowing al-Sisi to exert increased influence over the parliament and the judiciary. It will also allow the military to influence the country’s civil apparatus through the appointment of a Minister of Defense.
- The low voter turnout indicates that the amendments are likely not as popular among the locals as projected by the government. While opposition groups may utilize this argument to delegitimize the amendments, they are unlikely to be able to mobilize enough support to challenge al-Sisi, thus not interfering with his accumulation of further power over the coming years.
- Travel to Egypt may continue while adhering to all security precautions. It is advised to refrain from discussions with locals on the current political situation, the constitutional amendment process, the Muslim Brotherhood, and criticism toward the government.
In February 2019, Abdel Hady al-Qasabi, the leader of the majority party, the Support Egypt Coalition, submitted a proposal for 14 amendments to Egypt’s 2014 constitution to the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Ali Abdel Aal. The amendments were passed in the parliament by over a two-thirds majority, which is the required majority for the passage of a bill on constitutional amendments. 531 Members of Parliament (MPs) out of 596 voted in favor of the motion. On April 14, the parliament’s Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee approved the final draft of the proposed amendments. A nationwide referendum was held from April 19-22 on this final draft of the proposed amendments. 88.8 percent of voters voted in favor of the constitutional amendments. The turnout for the referendum was 44.3 percent of the eligible electorate. According to Abdel Aal, Egypt will “need to write a completely new constitution within the next 10 years”.
- The constitutional amendments will increase the presidential term from four to six years, with a maximum limit of two terms. However, according to a provisional article introduced in the amendments, current President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi will be allowed to run for a third term following the conclusion of his second term in office in 2024.
- The constitutional amendments will also re-introduce the position of vice president, which was abolished in 2012 to better balance the powers between a presidential and parliamentary system. The president will have the authority to appoint one or more vice presidents.
- If the president is not able to exercise his/her powers, the vice president will be responsible for dispensing the role of the president of the republic. However, the vice president will not have the power to amend the constitution, dissolve the House of Representatives or Senate, or dismiss the government. He/she will also not be allowed to run for the position of the president.
Assessments & Forecast
- This development is highly notable as it will essentially allow al-Sisi to remain in power at least until 2030, depending upon whether the president decides to run for office for another term upon completion of his second term in 2024. The overwhelming support for al-Sisi within the Egyptian parliament likely facilitated the constitutional amendment process. During the 2018 presidential elections, there was speculation regarding whether al-Sisi would run for a third term in office, which goes against the two-term limit prescribed under the 2014 constitution. This had prompted a vague response from al-Sisi in his acceptance speech in April 2018, which indicated that he would “respect the constitution” and the “will of the people”.
- In this context, the recent constitutional amendments are part of an effort by the president to preserve his power, while at the same time purporting to the local and international media that he and his government are respecting democratic values and principals. The constitutional amendments and the nationwide referendum on them will enable al-Sisi to legitimize his power as well as preserve his relations with the West, particularly with the US and France, which have provided Egypt with substantial economic and military aid over the past years.
- Furthermore, as indicated by the Speaker of the Parliament, Ali Abdel Aal, there is a possibility that the parliament will propose additional amendments to the current constitution or possibly even draft a completely new constitution for the country over the coming years. Therefore, an increase in his presidential term and term limit will allow al-Sisi to ensure that any additional changes to the constitution take place under his overview, thereby allowing him to further cement his power within the Egyptian political apparatus over the coming years.
- The reinstatement of the post of vice president is also meant to align with this goal. The president has the sole authority to appoint a vice president, which will enable al-Sisi to appoint one of his loyalists to the post. The fact that the vice president will be in charge of dispensing the duties of the president, in the event that the latter is unable to exercise his powers, will ensure the continuation of the policies implemented under al-Sisi. This is opposed to the provisions stated under the 2014 constitution, wherein the Prime Minister, who is an elected official, would be responsible for dispensing presidential duties in the absence of the president. In addition, the vice president’s lack of power to amend the constitution, dissolve the House of Representatives or Senate, dismiss the government, or run for president, will ensure that al-Sisi does not face a challenge to his authority from within his inner circle.
- The number of elected MPs in the House of Representatives will be reduced from 596 to 450, with 25 percent seats reserved for women representatives.
- A Senate, comprising of a minimum of 180 members, will be established. Two-thirds of the members of the Senate will be elected in a secret ballot and one-third will be appointed by the president. The Senate will have a five-year term.
- The Senate’s authority will extend to topics such as proposals for constitutional amendments, legislation on social and economic development as well as bilateral treaties and alliances.
Assessments & Forecast
- Prior to the referendum, Egypt had been a unicameral legislature, with only a House of Representatives. The introduction of a Senate, with a minimum of 180 members of parliament (MPs) would significantly increase the total number of MPs within the parliament, and therefore the decrease in the number of MPs in the House of Representatives is likely meant to balance this out. However, all MPs within the House of Representatives are directly elected by the local population, and the fact that one-third of the MPs within the Senate will be presidential nominees will significantly increase the president’s influence over the legislative branch of the government. Although the powers of the Senate are significantly lower than the House of Representatives, the former does have influence over several topics, such as proposals for constitutional amendments. This will further increase al-Sisi’s ability to get his policies enacted into legislation by the parliament, without any significant opposition.
- Aside from this, the decision to reserve 25 percent seats within the House of Representatives for women is likely part of the effort to project the current leadership as progressive. Pro-al-Sisi MPs will likely highlight this measure in their rhetoric to support the recent constitutional amendments and use it as a counter-argument for any criticism directed towards these measures by opposition groups, international media, and international human rights organizations. This will also allow al-Sisi to appeal to Western countries, by projecting that his government is upholding the liberal values of equitable representation. Moreover, it would help al-Sisi to garner the support of the country’s female population, which makes up almost half of the eligible electorate of the country, for any future legislation.
- The president will have the power to appoint the heads of all judicial authorities for a term of four years. A higher council of judicial authorities will be established and the president will be its head. It remains unclear whether the judicial authorities would be eligible for re-appointment for a second consecutive term.
- The president will also have the power to appoint a prosecutor-general from among three candidates nominated by the higher council of judicial authorities. The prosecutor-general’s term in office will be four years. It remains unclear whether the prosecutor-general would be eligible for re-appointment for a second consecutive term.
- The president will furthermore have the authority to name the Chairman as well as the commissioners of the Supreme Constitutional Court.
- Civilians can face trial in military courts is cases of assault against military establishments, military camps, military zones and borders, military equipment, vehicles, weapons, ammunition, documents, secrets, funds, and army factories. Such crimes would also include assault of officers and personnel affiliated with the armed forces while they are performing their duties.
- The Minister of Defense will be named only upon approval from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). The SCAF is a statutory body comprised of 20-25 senior Egyptian military officers and is headed by President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. The SCAF is convened only in times of war or a nationwide emergency.
Assessments & Forecast
- These provisions will significantly increase the president’s power over the judicial branch of the government. The president’s ability to appoint the heads of all judicial authorities within the country will allow al-Sisi to further crackdown on any form of dissent, which includes opposition leaders, journalists, and members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood political movement. This, in turn, would allow al-Sisi to further consolidate his powers, as the lack of an effective opposition would allow him to project an image of popular local support. The al-Sisi-led government has passed several laws over the past year, which allow security forces to increasingly monitor social media and traditional media platforms. On June 29, 2018, the Egyptian parliament approved a bill that would allow the Supreme Council for Media Regulation to monitor social media accounts with over 5,000 followers. The measure was reportedly adopted to block accounts that publish “fake news” or propagate the “breaking of law, violence or hatred”. Therefore, this constitutional amendment will ensure that the president is able to successfully have individuals arrested under such laws to be prosecuted by the courts.
- Moreover, the president’s authority over the appointment of the Chairman and commissioners of the Supreme Constitutional Court will provide al-Sisi with substantial powers over the review of legislative laws. The Supreme Constitutional Court in the sole judicial authority in charge of deciding the constitutionality of laws and regulations formulated by the parliament. Therefore, this measure will allow al-Sisi to influence judicial decisions on constitutional reviews, particularly on laws aimed at expanding his own powers or clamping down on dissent. This will also allow the al-Sisi-led government to censor traditional media, which is perceived to publish materials deemed as anti-government in nature, on the basis of “national security”, without the threat that such an exercise of power may attract the condemnation of the judiciary. This, in turn, would allow the president to influence local and international public opinion in favor of his presidency and policies.
- The provisions regarding the military will further increase the military establishment’s influence within the civil apparatus of Egypt. They will allow the government to try a varied number of individuals in military courts, regardless of the actual crime. On the one hand, this measure will allow the government to try militants who have engaged in attacks against security forces, such as those affiliated with the Islamic State (IS), IS-affiliated Wilayat Sinai, or disenfranchised Muslim Brotherhood groups, to be tried in military courts. On the other hand, this measure will also allow the government to extend the jurisdiction of military courts to include those individuals who may be perceived by the authorities as being subversive. For example, locals who may have been involved in scuffles with the police during any kind of protest activity in the country could also be tried in military courts on grounds that they assaulted security personnel during the discharge of their duties. This may also include individuals arrested on charges of “espionage” or funding of anti-government groups. This will allow the president to successfully prosecute his opponents without having to adhere to the laws and procedures of civilian courts.
- The fact that the appointment of the Minister of Defense can only be done in consultation with the SCAF will increase the influence of the military in Egypt’s civil apparatus. The SCAF is known to be comprised of old guard military officers, who helped al-Sisi during the military coup against former Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi in 2013. Al-Sisi is heavily reliant upon the support of the SCAF and the military establishment as a whole to ensure power stability. Therefore, through the appointment of a favorable Minister of Defense, the SCAF will be able to influence legislation and policies on national security. This will also at least partly allow the military to divert funds and resources towards the army, at the expense of other areas, such as economic and social development. The national security rhetoric adopted by the al-Sisi-led government will potentially aid in such a scenario.
Taken as a whole, the implementation of these constitutional amendments will significantly increase President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi’s powers within the country. However, the authorities had undertaken significant measures to incentivize voting in the nationwide referendum process and the fact that the turnout was only 44.3 percent of the eligible electorate indicates that these amendments are likely not as popular among the local population of Egypt as projected by the government. Opposition groups may attempt to utilize this argument to delegitimize the constitutional amendments and garner support for their anti-government activity. This will likely prompt a harsh response from the current leadership, which may manifest in the form of the detainment or arrest of political leaders, journalists, as well as individuals who are opposed to the constitutional amendments. The mobilization capacity of opposition groups in Egypt is currently very low, and this development has the potential to further adversely impact the ability of the opposition to organize under strong and unified leadership. Therefore, any potential low-level resistance to the constitutional amendments is unlikely to have a significant impact upon the al-Sisi-led government’s hold on political power in the country. This will allow al-Sisi to gradually accumulate further power both by taking advantage of vague laws and through additional amendments to the constitution in the coming years, further cementing his control over the country.
- Those operating or residing in Egypt are advised to refrain from discussions with locals on the current political situation, the constitutional amendment process, the Muslim Brotherhood, and criticism toward the government.
- Avoid making any statements critical of President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, government policies, and ongoing trials, as well as companies, given that legal measures, including deportation and detention, have been taken regardless of nationality. This applies both to public spaces and online, including in social media.
- Be advised that authorities may monitor online communications and any statements perceived to be anti-government in nature may increase the risk of detention or even arrest.
- In the event that a security checkpoint is encountered, act respectfully and patiently, while cooperating fully with security personnel.
- In addition, refrain from photographing or documenting protests and security installations at all costs, as such actions may draw hostility from local residents or confiscation of equipment by security forces, or possible detainment.
- As a precaution, refrain from traveling with sophisticated cameras or other features affiliated with journalists, as this may be perceived by the authorities as an attempt to undermine the government and its policies.
- As a general precaution, avoid all demonstrations and political gatherings in Egypt due to potential unrest emanating from such events, particularly given the government’s increased crackdown on opposition groups across the country.