The Egyptian Parliament voted on Thursday to eliminate the constitutional term limit for president, thereby ensuring that Abdel Fatah el-Sisi will be able to remain in office as late as 2034. 485 of 596 lawmakers in the parliament supported this new amendment, illustrating the broad support el-Sisi enjoys in the legislature. As reported by the Washington Post, affirmation in parliament means that the proposed changes will now be reviewed in a parliamentary committee before being remanded to the floor for a secondary vote. If passed again, the proposed changes will be placed on a national referendum as soon as this summer. Though there are still several steps before the amendment takes effect, the New York Times writes that its passage is all but guaranteed. El-Sisi’s security forces quietly manage parliamentary proceedings and have the ability to fast track constitutional change.
Despite strong parliamentary agreement, the vote was not without controversy. Critics fear that these measures will grant unprecedented near dictatorial powers to el-Sisi, who has already displayed authoritarian tendencies such as granting unchecked power to the military and carrying out forced disappearances. This authoritarian streak is particularly concerning in the wake of fairly recent democratic demonstrations. “Project to amend #Egypt constitution unfolding & in full throttle, Arab Spring in reverse!”, tweeted exiled opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei, who served as Vice President until resigning after a 2013 massacre of 800 protestors by the president’s security forces. Further, ten Egyptian rights groups issued a letter stating that if the changes take effect they would allow el-Sisi to “retain power for life and exercise unprecedented unilateral authority”. These concerns seem highly valid, as it was not long ago that el-Sisi promised not to seek an extension to his term. In a November 2017 interview, he told CNBC “we will not interfere”, adding that he intended to “preserve two four-year terms”. Although Egypt’s current democratic political environment seems to be approaching a significant turning point, foreign actors have been relatively quiet. As stated by Michael Page of the Human Rights Watch, “El-Sisi’s government is encouraged by the continued silence of its allies, if the U.S., U.K. and France want to avoid the destabilizing consequences of entrenching authoritarian rule in Egypt, they should act now.”
Egypt’s current trajectory may seem to proponents of democracy disappointing considering the events of the Arab Spring less than a decade ago. Mass protests, spread largely online and not delineated along socio-economic boundaries, swept through Cairo largely in response to increased government repression. Ultimately these protests were successful, and then-President Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign as head of state. The present situation may be characterized as a reaction to the unrest of 2011. Despite the tightening of his grip, el-Sisi has brought stability to Egypt. Chaos in other parts of the Middle East, such as Libya, Yemen, Syria – all allied to el-Sisi – provides a gory picture of what may await Egypt should the present political turmoil continue. Egypt in this way mirrors the present situation in Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seized upon the immediate unrest of a failed coup to increase exponentially his own powers. Egyptians must weigh the benefit of stability against the cost it extracts in terms of civil liberties. Further, those nations that extoll the virtues of democracy must not be silent as they watch fundamental constitutional protections breakdown. If this amendment is too proceed unchecked it is likely that authoritarian rule will become entrenched in yet another Middle Eastern nation, one which exhibited democratic promise during the Arab Spring.
President el-Sisi assumed office in 2014, following a landslide electoral victory in 2014, which saw him secure 97% of the vote. This level of support naturally calls into question the legitimacy of the democratic process. Yet, even with probable voter fraud, el-Sisi likely still held a strong base of support in 2014. As the former Minister of Defense, and Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, el-Sisi seemed a candidate of stability, especially when compared with the turmoil that followed the Arab Spring. Since taking office, however, el-Sisi has proven himself an authoritarian strongman rather than a moderating presence. He has granted increasing powers to the military and has faced only nominal opposition even after the enforced disappearance of former lieutenant general Sami Anan.
Unfortunately, el-Sisi’s maneuvering is not uncommon in our current political climate. Particularly in the Middle East, authoritarian strongmen have seized upon political turmoil to consolidate personalistic regimes. Provided such strongmen are able to maintain relative stability and economic prosperity, they often proceed either unchecked or without serious challenge. Increasing presidential powers to this degree represents a serious concern for democracy worldwide, especially in a nation where the foundations of representative rule lie on unstable ground. Nations that aim to protect democracy worldwide must recognize its unraveling in Egypt.
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