Forever president: on Egypt’s draft constitutional changes

Egypt’s proposed constitutional changes to extend presidential terms are a huge setback to the country’s democratic progress. Re-elected last year, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the military leader who seized power in 2013, would be allowed to begin afresh a six-year term in 2022 under the new amendments. Another provision envisages a political role for the military as a guardian of the Constitution. Thursday’s parliamentary vote initiating these changes will have to be ratified in a popular referendum, but few doubt the establishment’s capacity to secure it. The 2018 general elections were held without a serious challenger to Mr. Sisi, whose rival was in effect handpicked by the regime after other contenders were forced to quit the race. The economy has returned to a growth trajectory following an International Monetary Fund loan in 2016, in exchange for cuts in public subsidies. But soaring prices and double-digit unemployment have dimmed the government’s overall appeal. In the past five years, the popular upsurge that began with the overthrow of the three-decade-long autocratic rule of Hosni Mubarak in 2011 has subsided. The military crackdown has vengefully targeted Islamists from the Muslim Brotherhood government of former President Mohamed Morsi, who has since been convicted. The media and political activists anxious to consolidate the gains from the 2011 Tahrir Square mass protests have not been spared the authorities’ wrath either.

Egypt had begun nominal attempts at ushering in a multi-party system in 2005, when Mr. Mubarak got himself elected for a fifth term. But within a few months, he declared himself President for life. Attempts to switch to popular representative government in the latter part of his tenure were merely cosmetic. Within years, in 2011, followed the mass protests that demanded the overthrow of the Mubarak regime and formed the epicentre of the ‘Arab Spring’. Today, events have turned a full circle under Mr. Sisi’s firm grip on the levers of power. The military has been never so powerful since the rule of Gamal Abdel Nasser. As with several autocrats today, the Egyptian leader has leveraged the American and the Russian governments effectively, while they seem indifferent to the military’s excesses. Egypt similarly benefits from the strategic partnership it signed with China, bringing trade flows and investment. But above all, China’s politically hands-off approach is a win-win for both regimes. While such diversification may be smart diplomacy, it begs the question about Cairo’s long-standing position as the leader of the Arab world. There is a simmering anger among sections of the youth contending with unemployment and the absence of avenues for dissent. The Arab Spring is nearly a decade behind, but the conditions that brought the multitudes to Tahrir Square still prevail.

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