Tuesday,17 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1269, (5 - 11 November 2015)
Tuesday,17 July, 2018
Issue 1269, (5 - 11 November 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Constitutional conflict

Despite Al-Sisi’s attempts to end speculation that he is seeking to amend the 2014 Constitution to expand his powers, the debate rages on, reports Khaled Dawoud

Al-Ahram Weekly

The aftershocks of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s statements on 13 September are still reverberating.

“Egypt’s 2014 Constitution was written with good intentions, [but] nations cannot be built on good intentions alone,” Al-Sisi said two months ago.

On 29 October, dozens of public figures, political parties and NGOs gathered to launch “The National Front to Protect the Constitution.” Its aim is to prevent attempts to amend the constitution.

Only weeks before, Mazhar Shahin, a preacher at the famous Omar Makram Mosque who is also a talk-show presenter on the Sada Al-Balad private TV channel, launched “The Popular Campaign to Amend the Constitution.”

Like Ahmed Al-Fadali, who heads the so-called Independence Trend and coordinates one of the lists competing in the ongoing parliament elections, Shahin said his campaign’s slogan will be “We Will Amend the Constitution.”

Both Fadali and Shahin are known as hard-line supporters of Al-Sisi, and claim that the 2014 Constitution, which was approved by 98 per cent of Egyptians in a referendum, “restrains” the president.

Even more “dangerous”, according to their point of view, are the wide-ranging powers that the constitution grants the parliament, such as the need to approve the prime minister who is appointed by the president, and going as far as allowing MPs to impeach the president.

Shahin was once known as the orator of the 25 January 2011 Revolution against former president Hosni Mubarak. He insists he does not want to rewrite the constitution “but to amend only six articles that limit the powers of the president and make him unable to carry out his mission in fighting terrorism and improving the economy.”

The articles include one that limits the president to two four-year terms in office. Shahin says each term should be at least six years.

In a speech, Al-Sisi later denied that any changes in the constitution were imminent, and asked the media “not to read too much into my statements.”

Yet figures known for supporting Al-Sisi, including Sameh Seif Al-Yazal, continue to say they will consider amending the constitution, though not necessarily right after the parliament convenes. Seif Al-Yazal coordinates the “For the Love of Egypt” coalition that is tipped to win all four lists competing in the current parliament elections.

“This could happen in one or two years,” Seif Al-Yazal said. He made the same claim that the constitution restricts the president’s powers.

For pro-democracy political parties and activists taking part in the counter campaign aimed at protecting the constitution, the fears expressed by Seif Al-Yazal, Shahin and Fadali are “illusions” that are being used to cover up a hidden agenda aimed at reducing parliament’s powers, expanding the terms of the presidency, and curtailing the many freedoms and rights guaranteed by the constitution.

“The world has never known in its modern history a constitution that was drafted by certain people, only to see some of those same people later taking part in a campaign to distort it,” said Wahid Abdel-Meguid, an expert at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. Abdel-Meguid is also the coordinator of the new “Front to Protect the Constitution.”

Said Abdel-Meguid, “Some of the people who led the dancing and celebrations in the streets to mark this new constitution are now on the frontlines demanding its amendment, although it has hardly been put into practice.”

However, the context in which the dancing and celebrations took place in the streets during the voting on the constitution in January 2014 has changed dramatically. The referendum was the first major chance to prove domestically and internationally that the new regime enjoyed widespread popularity following the army’s removal of former president and Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi on 3 July 2013. A high turnout and an overwhelming rate of approval were seen as a must.

After Al-Sisi’s election as president in June 2014, parliamentary elections were repeatedly postponed, allowing him to maintain both executive and legislative powers. He issued more than 300 laws and decrees during his first 17 months in office, more than all laws issued by the parliament under Mubarak between 2005 and 2010, according to Shawki Al-Sayed, a prominent lawyer and legal expert.

Abdel-Meguid said that suggestions to amend the constitution first emerged after questions were raised about how the parliament will deal with the hundreds of legislations issued by Al-Sisi, considering that Article 156 states that the parliament must approve all laws released during its absence “within 15 days” after it convenes.

“This should not be a major issue,” said Abdel-Meguid. “The laws could be divided among several committees and voted on by members within a week or two. They can also approve the laws initially, and then come back to some of them to suggest amendments.”

With Al-Sisi’s popularity and dominance over all decisions taken, voices like those of Shahin and Fadali have emerged, saying that not just Article 156 needs to be changed, but all other articles that could limit his powers.

They have particularly criticised Articles 146, 147 and 161. The first two are related to the appointment of the prime minister, while the third details conditions for impeaching the president.

According to the constitution, the president appoints the prime minister and needs to receive the parliament’s approval. If the parliament turns down the president’s nominee, he must choose a second candidate who comes from the political party that has the largest number of seats. If that choice is also rejected, parliament must be dissolved and new elections held.

In the case of impeaching the president, the parliament needs the support of at least two thirds of its members, followed by a popular referendum. If the voters reject the proposal to impeach the president, parliament must be immediately dissolved.

Meanwhile, the president can dissolve the parliament at any time, provided he gets the support of the people in a public referendum. If voters reject the proposal to dissolve parliament, however, the president is not forced to resign.

George Ishak, one of the prominent leaders of the 25 January Revolution and the Kefayah Movement, said he is “astonished” by the campaign to amend the constitution and the claims that it limits the powers of the president.

“All such scenarios about impeaching the president are very theoretical and have no relation to the reality we’re in now,” Ishak said. “President Al-Sisi enjoys wide popularity, and nearly all those who decided to run for parliament have declared in advance that they want to back Al-Sisi’s plans. So, where are those fears coming from, and how can we imagine a situation where two thirds of parliament members want to impeach the president?”

For Nour Farahat, a prominent lawyer and a law professor at Mansoura University, the real aim of the ongoing campaign to amend the constitution is to “end once and for all any traces of the 25 January Revolution against Mubarak.”

While the 30 June 2013 protests that led to Morsi’s removal combined all secular parties and groups that opposed the Muslim Brotherhood, divisions quickly emerged afterwards. Supporters of ousted president Mubarak interpreted the 30 June events as an uprising not just against the Brotherhood but against all those who took part in the 25 January 2011 Revolution.

Hard-line supporters of the former Mubarak regime who own influential television stations repeatedly point out that several members of the 50-member committee that drafted the 2014 Constitution were strong supporters of 25 January.

Azmi Megahed, a member of Shahin’s campaign, also claims that some of those who drafted the constitution “stood against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces [which took over power after Mubarak’s removal] and shouted slogans against the army. We should not have allowed such people to write our constitution.”

Farahat said that Mubarak supporters are “very angry” that the preamble of the 2014 Constitution praises the January revolution, considering it a basis of legitimacy for the new regime, along with the June 2013 revolt against Morsi.

Ahmed Al-Boraie, a former minister and member of the Front to Protect the Constitution, believes those who are calling for amendments are also opponents of the many rights and freedoms it guarantees, including freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom to form associations and independent syndicates and women’s rights.

“We have been suffering from many legislations issued over the past two years that disregarded the rights stated in the 2014 Constitution such as the Protest Law, the law expanding military trials and the anti-terrorism law,” said Al-Boraie.

“Now those supporting the amendment of the constitution do not even want to see those rights written on paper.”

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