Amendments to Egypt’s constitution proposed and agreed by a parliamentary chamber dominated by supporters of General Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi have, in the words of his political opponents, concentrated more power in the hands of one man than ever before in the Republic.
In effect, they argue, Al-Sisi has crushed any hopes of Egypt being a modern democratic state. According to Hamdeen Sabahi, a former presidential candidate and a senior member of the opposition Civil Democratic Movement alliance, “It is a tyrannical regime that has legitimised and extended its rule.”
The consequences for the people of Egypt, a Reuters report revealed last month, include a threefold increase in the number of death sentences passed by the Egyptian judiciary since Al-Sisi came to power. The Egyptian government did not respond to detailed questions from Reuters regarding the report, but Al-Sisi has claimed previously that Egypt is besieged by terrorism. That, argue his supporters, is why he has extended his powers; he simply needs more time to rescue the economy and defeat the terrorists.
Not many people are convinced by this argument. Since the former General and Minister of Defence came to power through a military coup against the democratically-elected President Mohamed Morsi in 2013, Al-Sisi has cracked down on political opponents, imprisoning thousands of officials and supporters of the now outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and killing thousands of others. Although the Egyptian police claim that “terrorists” were killed in gun battles on the streets, critics accuse them of carrying out extrajudicial executions.
In order to get the controversial amendments through parliament, MPs, security sources and people with links to Egyptian intelligence have described how Al-Sisi’s supporters rewrote passages of the constitution and then pushed the changes through a pliant parliament. A source familiar with the parliamentary process has claimed that MPs did not contribute when the draft amendments were put together and presented to the House of Representatives. Some deputies who opposed the amendments — which were approved by 531 votes to 22 — allege that they were coerced and intimidated into giving their support. Opponents are known to have faced character-assassination campaigns by the authorities. At least 155 deputies are known to have signed an approving document in advance of seeing the proposed constitutional amendments. Moreover, the government has not responded to requests for clarification of what are believed to be procedural irregularities.
Senior judges wrote a letter to parliament on 16 March, which was seen by Reuters, warning that the amendments “would impinge on the independence of the judiciary.” One senior judge, Samir Al-Bahay, pointed out that justice is the basis of governance; the independence of the judiciary is the basis of justice; and without justice the state will be undermined.”
Judges are right to be concerned. The President of the Republic is now solely responsible for appointing senior judges and the public prosecutor, as well as the selection of one-third of the MPs in a new parliamentary chamber and the Council of Senators. The new constitution also gives the army the right to take over if senior officers believe that Egypt is heading in the wrong direction, although what “wrong” actually means is not made clear.
According to Timothy Kaldas, a non-resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, a pro-democracy think tank, the Egyptian government has tried to promote the changes as “some normal constitutional rearrangements with the extension of Al-Sisi’s presidential term being just a small part of a package of improvements to the constitution.” Diplomats and opposition figures, though, have said that the President’s advisers were keen to get approval for the amendments ahead of planned fuel price increases in the summer.
Egyptians are feeling the strain from higher sales taxes, reduced fuel subsidies and a weak currency, after the floating of the Egyptian pound. All these measures were part of an economic reform programme backed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Thus, while the economy has steadied, Al-Sisi’s popularity has declined. Official statistics showed last month that one in three Egyptians is living in poverty.
Accusations of terrorist links have even been made against members of liberal parties in Egypt. As well as facing such an allegation, Amir Eissa, a senior member of Al-Dostour, for example, has been detained since reporting to election officials that he witnessed bribes being handed over to voters at a polling station in Al Qalyubia Governorate, north of Cairo on the second day of the constitutional referendum in April. More than 120 opposition figures were arrested before and during the referendum, the Civil Democratic Movement has claimed.
Criticism of the government is virtually non-existent in the Egyptian media. Mohamed Abdel Hafiz, a board member of the Journalists’ Syndicate, has noted that articles are censored by officials prior to publication. Censorship of social media websites has also been discovered. A website dedicated to collecting signatures against the referendum was blocked hours after its launch in March, according to NetBlocks, an internet monitoring group. It was unclear who was behind the move, which happened after the site had already collected 60,000 signatures.
On 24 April, the Egyptian election commission announced that 89 per cent of voters had backed the amendments on a turnout of 44 per cent. The commission declared that the voting process was free and fair. Very few people are convinced.