Egypt needs a full debate on proposed constitutional changes
Let us first agree that state constitutions are not holy texts; they change with the times and according to the requirements of political, social and — perhaps — economic conditions. Therefore, the proposal submitted by the Support Egypt coalition, the majority parliamentary bloc, to amend a number of articles in Egypt’s constitution is formally acceptable.
Objectively, however, there is a growing controversy in society as a whole in this regard. This controversy is healthy on a political level, as long as it is governed by moral and intellectual rules and disciplines and everyone listens to all opinions without exclusion, marginalization or putting great effort into proving the other party wrong, regardless of its point of view.
The constitutional amendments proposed by the Support Egypt Members of Parliament targeted a number of articles, the most important of which was article 140, where the amendment aimed to extend presidential terms from four to six years, starting with the current president. Other amendments included the unification of the mechanism for selecting the prosecutor general from among three candidates nominated by the Supreme Judicial Council, in addition to allowing the president of the republic to appoint the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court from among the court’s five oldest vice presidents.
The amendments also included constitutional protection for the representation of women, youth and people with disabilities in Parliament, the creation of another parliamentary legislative chamber, or Senate, and considering the re-establishment of the Ministry of Information.
The proposed amendments are currently in the hands of the legislative committee of Parliament after most were approved during Parliament’s general session. The proposed amendments for articles 111 and 112 of the constitution, which targeted the abolishment of national press and media bodies, were not approved. Parliament unanimously approved the deletion of those amendments to keep the bodies as they are.
The legislative committee will now receive comments and suggestions from all parties, institutions and citizens for 30 days. This will be followed by a wide-ranging societal dialogue over the course of 60 days before the final parliamentary debate and the vote are held. After that, the amendments will be submitted to the president, who will call a popular referendum on the amendments within 30 days. The National Elections Commission will then manage the referendum process, which could see a vote held in July.
Controversy surrounding the amendments has been accentuated among society and in Parliament. In the first three parliamentary sessions that were devoted to discussing the amendments, the floor was given to 221 MPs, 126 of which were from the majority bloc, Support Egypt, while the remaining 95 were independent and opposition MPs.
The justifications of those in favor of the amendments were clear. The MPs underlined that this move is not heretical and is constitutional in terms of the law since it was signed by more than a fifth of Parliament. They also pointed out that, in the end, the people of Egypt will have their say.
For example, Margaret Azer MP said: “Egypt’s constitution of 2014 was backed by 90 percent of the Egyptian people. It is a great constitution but, when applied, we found that several articles require amendment. Therefore we, as the representatives of the people and signatories to the constitutional amendments, found it necessary to amend several articles, but the people of Egypt will have the last word.”
The constitutional amendments proposed by the Support Egypt Members of Parliament targeted a number of articles, the most important of which was article 140, where the amendment aimed to extend presidential terms from four to six years, starting with the current president
She confirmed her support for the political leadership, highlighting the amendments that targeted the presidential term and an increased female representation in Parliament. She said: “Egyptian women, whether in Parliament or in ministries or everywhere, have proved themselves, and 25 percent of the seats is not too much. In all international forums, we boast of having 90 women MPs in the Egyptian Parliament. And the appointment of a vice president of the republic is an important amendment and a popular demand if the constitutional amendments are to be in accordance with the implementation of the current constitution.”
Those who were against the amendments also had a voice in Parliament. The National Progressive Unionist Party announced that it rejected the amendments in principle due to a lack of clarity, especially since the Support Egypt coalition proposed the changes alone without prior dialogue.
The Conservative Party, which is a relatively new party, also announced its rejection. The head of the party’s parliamentary body, Talaat Khalil, said: “The amendments convey a negative message for society, and I reject them for many reasons. They must clarify that there is a safeguarded peaceful transfer of power.”
Ahmed Tantawi, a member of the 25-30 Alliance, gave the most powerful speech, which went viral on social media websites. He said that his firm and well-established personal convictions obliged him to declare the proposed amendments unconstitutional, according to two parts of article 226. He stressed that Parliament neither has the right to amend the presidential term unless it ensured greater guarantees, nor create a new article because this may result in the loss of public confidence and impartiality.
Tantawi added: “The amendments are a setback and a step backward to what is worse than the situation before Jan. 25 (the revolution), especially that absolute power corrupts absolutely. What is happening is similar to the logic of the Middle Ages. All the articles unanimously came in the wrong direction when the people were waiting for us as MPs to protect their right to live in freedom and dignity.”
Egypt’s Salafist Al-Nour Party had a stance that was halfway between the supporters and the opponents. The head of the party’s parliamentary body, Ahmed Khalil Khairallah, announced that he supported the amendments in part. He said: “The people of Egypt will have their say in the referendum on the amendments, so no one will outbid anyone. We support the amendments in part, and we have some concerns.”
Al-Nour always objects to religious and civil terms and phrases. This happened with the constitution of 2014 and in the constitutional amendments of 2011. MP Ahmed Khalil said that his party objects to the description of Egypt as a civil state in article 200. He explained: “We believe in a modern democratic state, and this term is new to the constitution. We reject the secular or theocratic state in the Western sense and we do not want to leave the future generations with an article that may get interpreted in manners that are not tolerated by Egypt. The term ‘civil’ means that Egypt is a secular state, and we want to replace it with the term ‘modern democratic’.”
No doubt Egypt awaits a new reality, especially if the constitutional amendments come into force, giving President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi the right to run for office for a third (and a fourth) term of six years.
The other amendments will also contribute to shaping a different reality, so this state of controversy and debate in society is very healthy. It is essential that the Egyptian media gets involved to allow for a plurality of opinions because the future is made by the people, not a group of MPs.
- Abdellatif El-Menawy is a critically acclaimed multimedia journalist, writer and columnist who has covered war zones and conflicts worldwide. Twitter: @ALMenawy