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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 April 2019

Egyptian parliament begins dialogue on changing country's constitution

Amendments would allow President El Sisi to rule until 2034 and enshrine military's role in Egyptian politics

Speaker Ali Abdel-Aal chairs a meeting of the Egypt's Parliament's constitutional and legislative affairs committee during the first session of hearings on proposed constitutional amendments on March 20, 2019. AFP
Speaker Ali Abdel-Aal chairs a meeting of the Egypt's Parliament's constitutional and legislative affairs committee during the first session of hearings on proposed constitutional amendments on March 20, 2019. AFP

Egypt's parliament has begun a societal debate on proposed constitutional amendments that will allow President Abdel Fatah El Sisi to stay in office for another 15 years and give the military a powerful role in politics.

Speaker Ali Abdel-Al, a staunch supporter of the president, opened the debate on Wednesday by saying the constitution was neither an "idol" that cannot be touched nor "divine religious teachings" that cannot be changed.

The constitution, a progressive document adopted in a 2014 referendum, can be amended and developed "in accordance with reality and in a way that realises the interests of the state and its citizens," he said.

Representatives of Al Azhar, the Sunni Muslim world's foremost seat of religious learning, and the Coptic Orthodox church, the predominant denomination for Egypt's estimated 10 million Christians, voiced their support for the amendments. Media celebrities and academics invited to the debate generally followed suit.

The proposed amendments extend presidential terms from four to six years but keep the two-term cap on holding the land's highest office. However, they include a clause applicable only to Mr El Sisi that allow him to serve two more six-year terms when his current one expires in 2022, potentially keeping him in office until 2034.

The changes also give the president the power to appoint top judges and exercise control over the judiciary through a new body that he will chair. The amendments also declare the armed forces the guardian of the nation and its democracy, formalising the de facto role of the military since army officers seized power in a 1952 coup that later toppled the monarchy.

They also give women a 25 percent quota in parliament and allow minorities and people with special needs a "suitable" representation in the chamber. Another change seeks to create a second, upper chamber, or senate.

The government says a four-year term is too short to allow a president to deliver results or fully implement his plans. They say allowing Sisi to stay in office beyond 2002 is the exception given the achievements of the general-turned-president who was first elected in 2014. As defence minister, Sisi led the military's ouster of an Islamist president in 2013 amid mass street protests against his rule. He was re-elected last year when he ran virtually unchallenged, with a little-known politician known to be among his supporters his only rival.

If approved by the house plenary, a foregone conclusion since it is packed with Sisi supporters, the amendments will be put to a vote in a nationwide referendum expected by late April or early May.

Makram Mohammed Ahmed, head of the media regulatory body, demanded during Wednesday's hearing that restrictions on the number of terms a president serves be lifted entirely, saying a leader who makes a significant contribution to economic growth should be allowed to stay in office as an "incentive" for presidents to perform well.

Mr Abdel-Al, the speaker, said there would be a total of six hearings on the amendments over the next two weeks and that more would be held if needed.

Mr El Sisi, who has remained publicly silent on the proposed amendments, is a zealous advocate of stability, his administration's top priority. He has repeatedly dismissed criticism of Egypt's human rights record under his watch, arguing that he was more concerned with the rights of housing, education and medical care than with freedoms. He has also argued that Egypt's rights record should not be judged from a western perspective.

Authorities have since 2013 detained thousands of Islamists along with pro-democracy activists and rolled back most of the freedoms won in a 2011 uprising that toppled longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak. Most critical voices in the media have been silenced and street demonstrations have effectively been banned in what critics say is the biggest crackdown on dissent in Egypt's modern history.

This week, Mr Ahmed, the head of the media regulatory agency, put into effect tighter restrictions on the media that empower the state to block websites and social media accounts with followers exceeding 5,000 if they are perceived to be a threat to national security. Offenders face heavy financial penalties, according to a text of the new regulations published in the official gazette. Authorities have over the past two years blocked hundreds of websites, including independent online news outlets.

Significantly, media reports on the amendment hearings suggested that none of those who took the floor voiced reservations about the possibility that Mr El Sisi might remain in office for another 15 years. Some speakers, however, questioned the need for an upper house or whether the judiciary's independence would be best served with the president wielding more power over it.

The hearings are open to the media, but they have not been aired live. Local television channels have aired excerpts of the proceedings, but not a complete recording.

Updated: March 21, 2019 07:39 PM

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