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From 19th to 21st April, Egyptians voted in a referendum that would enact constitutional changes allowing President Abdul Fattah el-Sisi to extend his rule. On 23rd April, the National Elections Committee announced that Sisi had won the vote with 88%, declaring a 44% voter turnout. The referendum comes after Egypt’s parliament overwhelmingly voted in favour of constitutional amendments on the 16th April.
Michael Page, Deputy Director at Human Rights Watch for Middle East and North Africa, reported for al-Jazeera that “The human rights trajectory in Egypt has been in a deep descent for several years now. The litany of serious abuses during President el-Sisi’s rule … appears set to continue with the constitutional amendments enshrining long-term autocratic rule”. He continued that “What’s especially concerning in these now-approved amendments is how they further undercut what’s left of the concept of an independent judiciary in Egypt, as well as how the amendments grant further licence for Egypt’s military to intervene in civilian affairs”.
As reported in The Guardian, “We were not given any chance to campaign,” said Khaled Dawoud, a long-time opposition figure and a member of the Civil Democratic Movement set up to oppose the changes. “Our members were arrested, and we had no access to local media at all.”
Sisi has entrenched his rule ever since his 2018 election victory, where any kind of political opposition was effectively stifled. Previously in 2013, Sisi had promised to limit his rule to the two terms laid out in the 2014 constitution. His latest bid is yet another clear display demonstrating his ambition to return Egypt to autocratic, one-man rule. While his current term was set to terminate in 2022, the latest constitutional changes increase the presidential term from four to six years. The limit of permitted presidential terms will also be altered, allowing Sisi to run again in 2024. The new system could allow Sisi to rule until 2030.
The referendum represents the final nail in the coffin for the Egyptian Uprising of 2011 and political pluralism in Egypt, as the final constitutional guarantee committing Egyptian presidents to only two terms is re-written. In addition to the extended term limits, the referendum grants the executive branch authority over key judicial appointments. Article 200 cements the military’s control over Egyptian politics as it is mandated to ‘protect the constitution and democracy’, without any specific definitions given and thereby providing ample opportunity for the military to arbitrarily intervene in politics.
In addition to the repressive nature of the proposed amendments, the referendum was held in decidedly undemocratic circumstances. Opposition campaigns were repressed and fines imposed on anyone calling for a boycott. An online petition calling for the rejection of the amendments was blocked within hours of its set up, despite having quickly achieved 250,000 signatures. Opposition leaders were put under investigation for ‘instigating chaos’. A Human Rights Watch report even outlined a campaign of mass arrests of anybody opposing the amendments.
Favorable votes were bought from the poor in the form of Ramadan food boxes. Intense propaganda campaigns in favour of the amendments were organised through state TV channels, patriotic songs, and conferences. Additionally, analysis by the Carnegie Middle East Center concluded that a turnout of 44% was highly improbable. Crunching the numbers revealed that voting centers would have had to have processed more than one voter every minute, which even by developed countries’ standards is quick. Reports from the ground suggested that voting centers were simply not this busy.
The Egyptian government should repeal these amendments immediately and respect a free and fair democratic process. Maximum pressure should furthermore be applied by the international community for the release of political prisoners arrested under tenuous circumstances.