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memri
July 1, 2019 No.
1462

In Response To Constitutional Amendments Extending President Al-Sisi's Term In Office, Egyptian Opposition Says Regime Was And Is Illegitimate, Journalists Call For Increasing Freedoms

By: Y. Graff*

Introduction

On April 20-22, 2019, Egypt held a referendum within the country and at its embassies abroad on amendments to the 2014 constitution that was approved after the ouster of the late president Muhammad Morsi.[1] The chief and most controversial of these amendments extends President 'Abd Al Fattah Al-Sisi's term in office. The results, announced on April 23, were 88% (about 23 million votes) in favor of the amendments and 11% (about 3 million voters) against; some 830,000 votes were ruled invalid.[2]

Ahead of the referendum there was a heated public debate inside and outside Egypt, mainly on the issues of extending Al-Sisi's term in office and of increasing the powers of the president and the military. Under Article 140 of the 2014 constitution, which limited the president to two consecutive terms of four years, Al-Sisi would have been barred from running again once his present term ended in 2022. The proposed amendments originally extended the president's term in office to six years, and a special "transitional clause," applying specifically to Al-Sisi himself, allowed him to stand for two additional terms after the current one, thus potentially extending his rule until 2034.[3] But following criticism, and debate in parliament, it was decided to suffice with extending Al-Sisi's present term to six years, i.e., until 2024, and then allowing him to run for another six-year term lasting until 2030.[4]   

Also controversial was an amendment to Article 185 authorizing the president to appoint the heads of the judiciary from a list of candidates submitted to him, and forming a Supreme Judicial Council headed by the president to oversee the judiciary, thus allowing him to intervene in its affairs.[5] Furthermore, an amendment to Article 200 entrusting the military with "preserving the constitution and democracy, and maintaining the basic pillars of the state and its civil character"[6] has given rise to fears of military intervention in politics.

The draft amendments were submitted to parliament in February 2019 by the Support Egypt majority bloc, following efforts by the regime to garner public support for them, including by means of articles in the Egyptian press. These articles argued that the constitution is not a sacred text that cannot be changed, but rather a tool for benefiting the country and society, and that, in this challenging period of political reforms, the good of the country mandates that Al-Sisi remain in power.[7]

The Egyptian opposition, however, some of whose members supported the removal of Morsi in 2013 and were involved in drafting the 2014 constitution, objected to the constitutional amendments from the start, and especially to extending Al-Sisi's term in office. This position was expressed, for example, by Hamdeen Sabahi, who has twice run for president and is regarded today as a leader of the Civil Democratic Movement, comprising several civil parties and opposition groups. In a January 8, 2019 interview with the Egyptian Al-Mashhad newspaper, Sabahi said: "[The constitutional amendments] are an attack on the only remaining outcome of the January 25 [2011 revolution], and an attack on the right of the Egyptian people to live under the rule of law, because the amendment [that extends] the president's term in office means that we are appointing an eternal dictator. Today he is a dictator... whose tyranny is limited to eight years, and now they want this tyranny to last 30 years, like in the Mubarak era."[8] Former Egyptian vice president Mohamed ElBaradei tweeted: "In oppressive regimes, the ruler disdains the constitution and the honorable 'tailors' [in parliament] adjust the constitution to his needs. It usually ends with the collapse of the constitution and the failure of the ruler..."[9] Reform and Development party chairman Mohamed Anwar Sadat (the nephew of the late president Anwar Sadat) said that the 2014 constitution has not been in effect long enough to determine that it requires amending.[10]

It should be noted that, in an unusual move, the regime allowed oppositionists to voice their objections to the amendments in parliament.[11] The criticism was voiced mainly by members of the 25-30 opposition bloc, which frequently speaks out against the regime's policies.[12] Even representatives of the Civil Democratic Movement, some of whose members have been persecuted by the regime, were invited to express their reservations regarding the amendments before parliament.[13] Conversely, the regime did fight the criticism voiced by the opposition abroad, including by the two factions of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), who called on Egyptians to boycott the referendum and launched an online campaign titled "Batil" ("Lie"), including a petition against the amendments.[14]

During the referendum there were complaints about improper procedure and even allegations that pro-regime elements were buying votes by distributing food packages to citizens in return for voting yes.[15] There were also reports of arrests of activists who voiced public opposition to the amendments.[16] After the announcement of the results, which, as noted, were overwhelmingly in favor of the amendments, opposition elements – including the MB and civil-secular figures – were quick to reject them, saying that the referendum and the regime were illegitimate and calling the amendments another nail in the coffin of the Egyptian democracy. Egypt's state media, on the other hand, celebrated the referendum results, but at the same time called on the regime to make use of the extra time provided by the amendments to open up the political arena and allow greater freedom of speech.

This report reviews the responses to the outcomes of the referendum. 

Egyptian Oppositionists: The Referendum On The Constitutional Amendments Was Illegitimate

The Civil Democratic Movement, a coalition of several Nasserist, liberal and socialist opposition parties that supported the ouster of Morsi but now protest the regime's suppression democratic freedoms, expressed satisfaction that some three million Egyptians had heeded its call to vote against the amendments, but at the same time appeared to accept its outcomes and did not challenge its legitimacy. In a statement it issued, the movement also stressed that it had not cooperated with the MB campaign against the amendments, for it had explicitly promised never to cooperate with them or with any other movement seeking to transform Egypt into a "reactionary dictatorship."[17]

The MB: The People Boycotted The Referendum, Exposing The Constitution As A Lie

The MB old guard likewise congratulated "the great Egyptian people" for heeding the MB call to boycott the referendum, and thereby "fulfilling its patriotic duty of exposing the military [regime's] pretense of democracy and the absurd farce of [holding] a referendum on amending the false constitution of the coup." It added that the public had boycotted the referendum because "the procedure had been invalid from the start, as well as unfair and non-transparent."[18]   

The MB's young faction issued a similar statement, congratulating all the opposition forces that had acted against the amendments despite the persecution of the regime. It also expressed hope that the rejection of the amendments by all the opposition forces, whether they had boycotted the referendum or voted no, would be "the first step towards uniting [the opposition] for the benefit of the homeland."[19]

Journalist Gamal Sultan: The Corrupt Handling Of The Referendum Is A Stain On Egypt

Gamal Sultan, editor of the Al-Misriyyoun daily, who has been publishing his articles on the Arab Network website since the regime laid sanctions on his paper's site,[20] also decried the "disgraceful" moves of the regime in the matter of the constitutional amendments. He wrote on April 24: "The disgrace was evident in images and scenes on the ground, [scenes] of food packages being distributed to the common people and to the poor in order to encourage them to participate in the referendum and vote for the president, and thereby approve his remaining on Egypt's throne more or less for the rest of his life... When the world sees that Egypt's political will [can be bought] with a package of food, that is a terrible disgrace and humiliation, especially when this is done by the regime and its supporters."[21]


Future of the Homeland, a pro-Al-Sisi party, distributes food packages to citizens in front of the voting booth (source: Al-Quds Al-Arabi, London, February 22, 2019)

Writer 'Alaa Al-Aswani: Referendum Is Pointless And Illegitimate; The People Will Continue To Strive For Freedom

Renowned author 'Alaa Al-Aswani, who supported Al-Sisi when he first took office but for several years now has been harshly critical of the regime and claims that he is barred from writing in the Egyptian press,[22] commented on the referendum on the Arabic section of the German website Deutsche Welle. He noted that the amendment extending Al-Sisi's presidency is unconstitutional because the 2014 constitution explicitly states that its provisions regarding the re-election of the president may not be amended without sufficient guarantees. He added that a referendum held in a climate of oppression and amid allegations of voter bribing and coercion cannot be legitimate. "This referendum has no value or legitimacy," he wrote. "Egypt is now a country ruled by a military dictator who is oppressing the people to an unprecedented degree... [But] no matter how much this dictator increases his oppression of the people and infringes on the constitution in order to remain in power, he will not quench the people's yearning for freedom, justice and a dignified existence. The tremendous waves of protest in Algeria and Sudan are resounding proof that the Arab revolution continues..."[23]  

Political Activist 'Alaa 'Abd Al-Fattah: It's Naïve To Believe That The Constitution Can Limit The Term Of A President Who Comes From The Military

Similar criticism was voiced by political activist 'Alaa 'Abd Al-Fattah, a leader of the 2011 Arab Spring protests in Egypt who opposed the 2014 constitution and was even sentenced to five years in prison in 2013 for organizing a demonstration against it. In an article on the madamasr.com website, he wrote that the constitutional amendments were meaningless because "the 2014 constitution was never meant to be implemented in the first place but only to grant legitimacy to new government arrangements." He added:  "I can't believe that any of us are so naïve as to believe that any text can really limit the term in office of a president who comes from the military establishment."[24]

Actor 'Amer Waked: To Meddle With The Constitution Is To Play With Fire That Will Eventually Burn The Meddler Himself

Another figure who spoke out against the amendments was well-known Egyptian actor 'Amer Waked, who lives in Spain and frequently opposes the Al-Sisi regime,[25] and who took part in the "Batil" online campaign against the constitutional amendments.[26] Waked told the MB-affiliated website arabi21.com that he does not regret taking part in the protests that led to the ouster of Morsi in 2013, but that, sadly, "the revolution went off course" in 2014 after Al-Sisi broke his promise not to run for president. He assessed that Al-Sisi's efforts to extend his term in office will be thwarted by popular protests that will break out against him, because "history proves that all leaders who meddle with constitutions play with fire that burns them before anyone else. A curse pursues anyone who meddles with the constitution."[27]


The constitution is being amended to fit Al-Sisi (source: Al-Quds Al-Arabi, London, February 16, 2019)

Egyptian Press Articles: Constitutional Amendments Must Be Leveraged To Enhance Political Freedoms

The Egyptian press, most of which supports the regime, did not challenge the legitimacy or outcomes of the referendum. However, some journalists did lament the weak presence of the opposition in the debate on the referendum and the process of its approval, and called upon the regime to open up the political arena and enhance freedom of speech.

Al-Shurouq Daily Editor: The Government Has Paralyzed The Opposition; We Need More Freedom

'Imad Al-Din Hussein, editor of the independent daily Al-Shurouq, argued that a strong opposition is a source of honor and strength for a country. He wrote: "When the parliament voted on the amendments, the balance was in favor of those who supported them... and the same was true during the referendum [itself], in Egypt and abroad. The supporters' voice was the loudest and most prominent. Huge billboards in greater Cairo and in the provinces, put up by various [political] elements, called [on the Egyptians] to 'do the right thing,' namely to vote yes, whereas not a single billboard called to vote no. Moreover, the scope of [propaganda] in support of the constitutional amendments was clearer near the voting booths. I saw this myself, at more than one booth in Cairo and Giza.


Billboard calling to vote for the amendments (source: english.alarabiya.net, April 16, 2019)

"Why was the opposition absent? Was it because of its weakness, or because the various government apparatuses have hobbled it?!... One of the major reasons for this absence is the government's heavy-handed and ongoing measures against it, which have left it exhausted, atrophied, paralyzed and desiccated. That is why the public hardly notices its existence and has even begun to treat it as a joke...

"On the first day of the referendum, I saw a photo of Nasserist politician Hamdeen Sabahi on his Facebook page that showed him standing behind the voting booth screen holding up a voting slip saying 'no' to the amendments. Although this photo may have angered some government supporters, the truth is that it was the best propaganda for the government, since it assured [people] that there is some room for freedom of expression and speech that allows a prominent oppositionist to clearly say no and suffer no consequences...

"Egypt, the government and society as a whole need more freedom... so that people can express themselves about the concerns and problems of society. If the national opposition continues to be absent like this, it may have a very [grave] impact on the state and all its sectors, and the only ones who will benefit from this will be the vultures that are always ready to rip the country to shreds, and their supporters..."[28]     


Hamdeen Sabahi holding up his voting slip marked "no" (source: facebook.com/Hamdeen.Egypt, April 20, 2019)

MP Mustafa Bakri: As The State Enters A New Phase, Egyptians Continue To Hope For More Freedom

MP and journalist Mustafa Bakri, who is close to the Egyptian regime, wrote that the Egyptian people now expect more freedom that will improve their quality of life. He wrote: "In the past years, and especially after the January 25, 2011 [revolution against Mubarak], the Egyptian people experienced difficult economic and security conditions as chaos reigned, values collapsed and the [view] giving priority to the survival and prosperity of the state took a plunge. Yet the Egyptian people stood fast, defended its state and its national entity, and bore the burden of the economic reforms, certain that the Egyptian leadership was acting to achieve progress and growth...

"[Now,] after the announcement of the [referendum] results, the state will surely enter a new phase and deal with important commitments and [with the passing of] supremely important laws that will determine the character of the upcoming era, in every domain. The Egyptians hope for greater political and media freedom that will promote political activism and grant an adequate quality of life to all social sectors. The Egyptians have not lost their hope for reform. They suffered and continue to suffer, for they understand that their country is in a state of war that threatens its security and stability. But they [continue to] hope for a better future for themselves and their children..."[29] 

Al-Watan Columnist: Greater Freedom Of Speech And A Robust Opposition Will Strengthen Society

Muhammad Salah Al-Zahhar, a columnist for the pro-regime Al-Watan daily, stressed the importance of a robust opposition that vitalizes the state. He wrote: "The results of the referendum exposed the crucial need to realize that the only way to encourage political activism [is to allow] the existence of both [regime] supporters and oppositionists. I refer to support and opposition that are free of personal or private motivations. A plurality of views is natural and immunizes society, any society, against illnesses... which will surely harm this society if it does not immunize itself by being more open and allowing the expression of different views...

"Without any [need to] organize or arrange this, the nearly four million citizens [who voted against the amendments] became an abstract body [representing] a different opinion vis-a-vis the majority that supported them – assuming that those who cast invalid votes did this deliberately as an act of protest or opposition. Although the Civil Democratic Movement holds itself responsible for motivating these voters to express their opposition to the reforms, and although I do not agree with their position, I believe that the majority and the regime must be prudent, study [the situation], and carefully and quickly set out the road map whose formulation and implementation have been delayed [by] vitalizing the political scene – [a move] that will benefit [society] in the future.

"I say once again that it is the regime that now bears the greater responsibility for taking several steps forward [by] supporting dissenting opinions and allowing them to be fully expressed in a variety of ways... I hope the regime brings the media, which is mostly under its control, to show greater openness to dissenting views and give [their proponents] every opportunity... to realize their right to express their opinions and views. I believe that the group of people who said no to the reforms is a source of positive energy which should be leveraged to create better politics."[30]

* Y. Graff is a research fellow at MEMRI.

 

[1] On the 2014 constitution, see MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 1049, Egypt's Draft Constitution 2014: Focus On De-Islamization, Expansion Of Military Power, January 10, 2014.

[2] Al-Watan (Egypt), April 23, 2019.

[3] An April 6, 2019 report in the pro-regime Egyptian daily Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' explained that the 2014 constitution, which limited presidents to eight years in office, was written in a climate of pressure and of concern about presidents like Mubarak who clung too long to their seats. But today, it said, Egypt is in a period of transition from destruction to construction, and Al-Sisi must therefore be allowed to complete the political and economic reforms he has started.

[4] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), April 14, 2019.

[5] According to the amendment, the council will include the heads of various judicial bodies, including the Court of Cassation, the Supreme Constitutional Court and the General Prosecutor's office. The Egyptian parliament is now required to pass a law regulating the council's activity. Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), May 16, 2019.

[6] Al-Ahram (Egypt), April 14, 2019.

[7] Al-Ahram (Egypt), December 11, 2018; Akhbar Al-Yawm (Egypt), December 29, 2019; albawabhnews.com, January 2, 2019. Reports on efforts by the regime to extend Al-Sisi's term in office appeared in the media as early as November 2018. The Egyptian madamasr.com website, which is known for its criticism of the regime and has been blocked in Egypt since 2017, reported that Egyptian intelligence elements had contacted parliament about extending Al-Sisi's term to six years, and that the move was led by the president's son, Mahmoud Al-Sisi, and intelligence chief 'Abbas Kamel. Madamasr.com, November 22, 2018.

[8] Al-Mashhad (Egypt), January 8, 2019. At the time the interview was given, it was not yet known how long an extension the amendments would provide.

[9] Twitter.com/ElBaradei, January 15, 2019.

[10] Arabi21.com, January 9, 2019.

[11] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), March 28, 2019.

[12] During the April 16, 2019 session at which the parliament voted on the amendments, MP Ahmad Tantawi described the bid to extend Al-Sisi's rule as dangerous, adding that he does not like the president and does not trust him. These statements apparently crossed the line of what was regarded as acceptable criticism, for Parliament Speaker 'Ali 'Abd Al-'Aal asked to strike them from the record. Madamasr.com, April 16, 2019.     

[13] The statements delivered by these representatives – including Popular Socialist Coalition chairman Madhat Al-Zahed, Reform and Development Party chairman Muhammad Anwar Al-Sadat, and Egyptian Social Democratic Party head Farid Zahran – were posted on the movement's Facebook page. They warned about returning to the days of Mubarak and complained that the procedure of formulating the amendments had been insufficiently transparent. The movement called on the citizens of Egypt to take part in the referendum and vote against them. Facebook.com/civil.democratic.movement2018, March 29, 2019.

[14] Madamasr.com, ikhwanonline.info, April 16, 2019.

[15] Madamasr.com, Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), April 22, 2019.

[16] For example, according to reports, young activist Ahmad Badawi was arrested for holding up a sign against the constitutional, and Al-Dustour Party head 'Alaa Al-Khayam was held for questioning for protesting that civil servants were compelled to vote in the referendum. Madamasr, April 21, 2019; Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), May 12, 2019. 

[17] Facebook.com/civil.democratic.movement2018, April 23, 2019.

[18] Ikhwanonline.com, April 26, 2019.

[19] Ikhwanonline.info, April 23, 2019.

[20] In September 2018 the Interior Ministry seized the assets of the Al-Misriyyoun daily on charges of cooperating with a terror organization. Today the daily's website remains active but no longer posts articles by the daily's editor. Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), September 26, 2019.

[21] Arabnn.net, April 24, 2019.

[23] Dw.com, April 23, 2018. Following the publication of this article and of other statements by Al-Aswani in the Western media, a pro-regime Egyptian attorney filed a complaint against him for "disseminating false news and casting doubt on the outcomes of the referendum." Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), May 3, 2019.

[24] Madamasr.com, April 29, 2019.

[25] On March 25, 2019 Waked met with U.S. Congress members to protest Al-Sisi's planned constitutional amendments. Washingtonpost.com, March 26, 2019. Shortly afterwards, the Egyptian Actor's Syndicate revoked his membership and accused him of treason against the nation and the Egyptian people. Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), March 27, 2019.

[26] Arabi21.com, April 14, 2019.

[27] Arabi21.com, April 29, 2019.

[28] Al-Shurouq (Egypt), April 22, 2019.

[29] Al-Usbou' (Egypt), April 21, 2019.

[30] Al-Watan (Egypt), April 25, 2019.