Egyptian lawmakers on Tuesday approved sweeping changes in the country’s constitution to extend President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi’s rule and give him unprecedented powers, cementing his authoritarian grip on the Arab world’s most populous nation.
The vote — 531-22, with one abstention — was widely expected: The legislature is dominated by Sisi’s loyalists, and Sisi’s regime has largely silenced opposition to the constitutional amendments, arresting dissenters and seeking to stamp out an online protest campaign by shutting down its website. It has also taken steps to restrict online content that allowed Egyptians access to the opposition campaign.
The amendments, which were pushed through parliamentary hearings and debates over a few weeks, will now be put to a public referendum, a three-day process that could begin as early as next week. But critics say an equitable vote is unlikely.
If a majority of Egyptians vote in favor, it would extend presidential terms to six years. So Sisi’s current term would be extended by two more years, and he would be permitted to run once again in 2024. That means, in theory, that Sisi could remain in power until 2030.
Sisi would also be given new powers to appoint judges as well as the public prosecutor, in effect gaining control over the judiciary. The proposed changes also include declaring that the military’s role is to protect “the constitution and democracy.” Critics say that would allow the military, which Sisi once led and remains the force behind his presidency, to influence politics and expand its power.
The measures to bolster Sisi’s influence stand in sharp contrast to the populist revolts in Algeria and Sudan that have toppled long-ruling dictators in recent weeks and are now seeking to oust the entire political and military elites in their nations.
If the constitutional changes are approved in the referendum, Sisi’s critics fear that his rule — already considered the most authoritarian in Egypt’s modern history — will escalate the evisceration of freedoms, rights and the rule of law. Sisi’s regime has jailed tens of thousands of critics and opponents, all but obliterated independent media and shut down hundreds of websites deemed critical of his presidency.
Sisi’s supporters insist that his tenure needs to be extended to allow him more time to implement economic reforms, finish large development projects including the construction of a new administrative capital, and fight terrorism, notably an active Islamic State branch centered in the country’s northern Sinai region.
“There has to be an infrastructure in the country for the youth to have a better future,” said Ahmad Abdel Baqy Metwally, 62, a retired government employee. “I want Sisi to continue, because he is an expert on security. Had not it been for him, we would have been living in chaos and massacres now.”
Sisi became president in 2014, a year after he led a military coup that toppled Egypt’s elected Islamist leader, Mohamed Morsi. In 2018, Sisi was reelected in an election in which all of his credible opponents were driven out of the contest through arrests, intimidation or the absence of a level playing field.
More than a week ago, posters and banners emerged across Cairo and in other cities urging Egyptians to vote yes on the proposed constitutional changes — even though no date has yet been set for the vote. Many were emblazoned with Sisi’s visage, with a bright red check mark next to it.
“Yes to the constitutional amendments for a better future for Egypt,” read one banner.
In several drives around Cairo in recent days, not a single “No” poster could be seen. Egypt’s weak opposition and pro-democracy activists say they have been blocked from openly campaigning.
Earlier this month, leading Egyptian opposition figures launched an online campaign called Batel, which in Arabic means “void,” to give Egyptians a forum to oppose the proposed changes. But a day after the online petition was launched — it had reached 60,000 signatures within 12 hours, its organizers said — the government blocked the website.