Egyptians have overwhelmingly voted to overhaul the 2014 constitution, granting President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi greater control over the judiciary and parliament. Almost 27 million votes were cast, or 44.33 per cent of 61 million eligible voters, with 88.83 per cent voting yes, according to the commission’s chairman Lasheen Ibrahim. The constitutional changes will extend el-Sisi’s current presidential term to six years from four and allow him to run again in the next election in 2024. They will also strengthen the role of the military in politics and expand the president’s power over judicial appointments and a significant portion of a new parliamentary house. Although a campaign against the planned changes supposedly did exist, there was little evidence of such. Opposition websites were blocked and protests cancelled by the authorities. Meanwhile, pro-government media, business, and legislators all pushed for a yes, with banners endorsing the changes draped throughout the city streets.
International advocacy groups and academics have criticized the autocratic nature of the amendments. “These amendments aim to smother Egyptians’ aspirations to live in dignity and under the rule of law,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “There will be dangerous repercussions from the ruling regime as we will see more repression and restrictive policies,” Hassan Nafaa, a political science professor at Cairo University, told the Associated Press news agency.
The constitutional changes significantly boost presidential authority in a number of ways, threatening to entrench Sisi’s personalistic dictatorship. Firstly, they fundamentally allow him to stay in power until 2030 with a re-election in 2024, nullifying his public pledge in 2017 to respect presidents’ two four-year terms, and make an eventual peaceful transfer of power appear increasingly unlikely. Secondly, by expanding control over the judiciary’s top appointments and even its budget, what was left of a weakening independent judiciary system and any potential legal challenge to his power has been completely destroyed. Finally, the granting of the Sisi-controlled Egyptian Armed forces the prerogative to intervene in domestic politics effectively provides Sisi with a protective guard against any dissent.
The amendments come as a crucial step in the institutionalising of Sisi’s authoritarian rule, just eight years after autocratic president Hosni Mubarak was toppled in a pro-democracy uprising. Sisi, a former general, came to power following his 2013 overthrow of democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi. Since then he has brutally crushed opposition to his rule, forced disappearances have become common, and tens of thousands have been jailed. Media and civil society organisations have been closely monitored and those more critical outlets shut down. Furthermore, civilian bodies such as the parliament and universities have been appointed under full control of security agencies and filled with loyalists. With his opposition forced out of politics, last year Sisi was able to win re-election with a whopping 97 percent of the vote. All other serious candidates were eliminated months in advance.
The consolidation of Sisi’s personalistic dictatorship and denial of public political participation will likely increase violence and conflict in both the resistance of disaffected and vengeful citizens and resulting repression attempts. The international community must now use this opportunity to speak out against Sisi’s entrenching of unchecked power. Egypt, highly dependent on international financing, diplomatic support, and security assistance, will be listening. The U.S. especially can use its annual $1.3 billion in military aid as leverage against Sisi. Europe too should publicly signal its disapproval and call for a peaceful constitutional transfer of power after Sisi’s current term. Whereas there is no guarantee that he will be deterred, it will show genuine support for the Egyptian people and encourage the country’s political actors and civil society to organise and demonstrate real opposition.
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