Egypt’s parliament votes to allow Sisi rule until 2034

Approval of sweeping measures tees up referendum to entrench authoritarian regime

 

The Egyptian parliament approved sweeping measures on Thursday that would allow President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi to extend his leadership until 2034, further entrenching his authoritarian rule and enshrining in law the military’s dominance over the country.

The vote by parliament, whose workings are quietly managed by Mr Sisi’s intelligence agencies, sets in motion a fast-moving process of constitutional change that could culminate in a referendum within three months. The referendum’s approval is seen as a foregone conclusion.

The changes formally confirm what has become evident to many Egyptians for years: that the sweeping euphoria of 2011, when protests led to the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak, has given way to an even harsher brand of strongman rule under a leader who also intends to rule for decades, and perhaps for life.

“Project to amend #Egypt constitution unfolding & in full throttle,” the exiled opposition politician Mohamed ElBaradei, who resigned as vice-president after Mr Sisi’s security forces massacred more than 800 protesters in 2013, wrote on Twitter. “Arab Spring in reverse!”

Demolish the constitutional safeguards

The proposed amendments would allow Mr Sisi, who is scheduled to step down in 2022, to run for two more six-year terms, and would demolish the constitutional safeguards Mr Sisi himself introduced in 2014, a year after he came to power in a military takeover.

The changes grant Mr Sisi the power to appoint judges and the prosecutor general. The army will have the power to approve the appointment of the defence minister. The amendments declare the military as the “guardian and protector” of Egypt’s state, democracy and constitution.

Not long ago, Mr Sisi promised he would not seek to extend his leadership. “We will not interfere,” he told CNBC in November 2017, referring to the constitution, adding that he was intent on “preserving two four-year terms”. But within months of a flawed presidential election in March, which Mr Sisi won with 97 per cent of the vote, his supporters started to raise the idea of constitutional amendments.

Supporters say that Mr Sisi needs to extend his rule to introduce needed economic overhauls and to stabilise Egypt after the turbulence unleashed by the Arab Spring in 2011. In speeches, Mr Sisi frequently refers to chaos in Libya, Syria and Yemen as dark examples of what Egypt could become. Many Egyptians share those fears.

Civil liberties and human rights

But stability has come at a high price in terms of civil liberties and human rights. The country has jailed tens of thousands of opponents, banned hundreds of websites and exerted tight control over the courts. The news media is almost entirely under government control and torture is common in Egyptian prisons, rights groups say.

Despite those abuses, Mr Sisi has been bolstered by strong support from western and Arab leaders who view him as a bulwark against Islamist militancy. US president Donald Trump has hailed Sisi as a “great guy”, and secretary of state Mike Pompeo lavished praise on the Egyptian leader’s policies during a visit to Cairo in January.

The French president, Emmanuel Macron, visited Cairo recently to sign weapons deals, the latest of several European countries to cash in on Egypt’s appetite for multi-billion-euro arms purchases.

Harsh economic overhauls instituted by Mr Sisi have won him praise and a $12 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund, but they have stirred quiet discontent among Egyptians struggling with soaring prices and with cuts to fuel and electricity subsidies. – New York Times