Wednesday,20 September, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1357, (17 - 23 August 2017)
Wednesday,20 September, 2017
Issue 1357, (17 - 23 August 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Revisiting the constitution

Calls to amend the constitution to extend the president’s term and give him more powers are triggering debate. Gamal Essam El-Din talks to parliamentarians and Mona El-Nahhas sounds out observers’ views

 

Revisiting the constitution
Revisiting the constitution

By: Gamal Essam El-Din

In a statement issued on 12 August, head of parliament’s Human Rights Committee Alaa Abed called for amending Egypt’s 2014 constitution not only to extend presidential terms but also to give the president greater powers necessary to implement his election platform. “The powers we want to give the president should include the right to appoint and fire cabinet ministers without getting parliament’s prior approval,” said Abed, adding that “a presidential term should also be increased from four to six years to help future presidents implement their programmes.”

According to Abed, “a four-year term is a very short period for the people to judge a president, not to mention that it does not serve stability in Egypt. An election every four years in Egypt is highly costly both in security and financial terms,” Abed added.

Abed, who is also the parliamentary spokesman of the Free Egyptians Party, argued that “when the Constituent Assembly met to draft the constitution four years ago, it was under pressure from the 30 June 2013 Revolution which erupted to eliminate the autocratic rule of the Muslim Brotherhood and religious fascism,” said Abed, “but as [former president Mohamed] Morsi exploited presidential declarations to give himself absolute powers, the Constituent Assembly reacted by stripping the president of many of his essential powers in the new constitution, in addition to cutting his term short to just four years in office.”

Abed said the constitution should also be amended to bring the second legislative chamber back to life. “We want an upper parliament to be created under the name ‘the Senate’ to help the House of Representatives bear its legislative and supervisory responsibilities.”

Abed said he does not want to amend the constitution’s chapter on freedoms and rights. “This chapter was drafted in a very good way. All we want is to change at least 15 articles to help the country meet economic and security challenges in the coming years,” Abed said.

He recommended that the constitution be amended ahead of next year’s presidential elections. “Let’s draft the amendments and let’s leave the choice up to the people to approve or reject them in a public referendum.”

Parliament Speaker Ali Abdel-Aal announced several times that Egypt’s 2014 constitution should not be viewed as “the Holy Quran” immune to change.

In a meeting on 9 August with constitutional law professors affiliated with Mansoura University, Abdel-Aal said “Egypt’s 2014 constitution in its current form does not help serve the country’s needs in the long run. Many of the articles of this constitution should be reconsidered such as the article which allows the president to appoint a cabinet minister only after getting parliament’s prior approval,” said Abdel-Aal.

Ismail Nasreddin, an MP affiliated with the parliamentary majority bloc Support Egypt, was the first to call for amending the constitution. Nasreddin said Article 140 should be amended to extend the president’s term from four to six years.

Nasreddin, an MP from south Cairo’s district Helwan, told reporters in February that he also wants to change two other articles on the relationship between the president and parliament. “In particular, I want to change Article 146 which allows the president to dismiss the government and make a minor cabinet reshuffle only after getting the prior approval of the majority of MPs,” said Nasreddin, adding that “Article 103 which stipulates that MPs — including those highly qualified — shall devote their full time to parliamentary business should also be amended,” said Nasreddin.

Osama Heikal, head of parliament’s Media, Culture and Antiquities Committee, also told reporters in July that he wants to change Article 210 of the constitution which states that full judicial supervision of general elections shall be phased out by 2024. “The article should be amended to make full judicial supervision permanent and everlasting,” Heikal said.

The calls for change, however, so far do not have enough support in parliament. Mohamed Al-Sewidi, head of Support Egypt, told reporters in a press conference in June that “what we see are just individual calls; there is no collective action seeking to amend the constitution.”

Minister of Parliamentary Affairs Omar Marawan also told reporters in a press conference in July that “the government does not intend to amend the constitution”. “Who said the government wants to change the 2014 constitution?” Marawan asked, adding that “these reports are just based on hearsay and baseless rumours”.

Amr Hashem Rabie, an Al-Ahram political analyst, described the amendments as “an invitation for Mubarak-style autocratic rule to infiltrate Egypt again”.

Rabie said “the articles which gave parliament greater powers were necessary because the major objective of the 2014 constitution was to turn Egypt into a mixed parliamentary-presidential state or a state in which the parliament and the president share power. But it seems that MPs are rather keen on maintaining their new powers to bring us back to the old Pharaonic style of rule”.

By contrast, Mohamed Fayez Farahat, an Al-Ahram political analyst, insisted in an article in the newspaper on 27 July that “those who call for extending presidential terms do not want to serve President Al-Sisi in particular or bring back autocratic rule.

“They reflect the point of view of a wide sector of society which believes that a four-year term is very short to judge a president, not to mention that this short period does not help keep the country be stable in a region plagued by internal conflicts and sectarian strife,” argued Farahat.


By: Mona El Nahhas

MP Ismail Nasreddin is seeking to amend the 2014 constitution ahead of next year’s presidential election. In a 10 August press release Nasreddin insisted the constitutional amendments were needed “to cope with current political conditions”. His comments echoed those made by Parliament Speaker Ali Abdel-Aal who had earlier argued that the constitution, “drafted during a time of political unrest” needed revisiting.

Nasreddin says he intends to propose amendments to at least six constitutional articles during the new parliamentary term which begins in October.

Article 140, which sets the presidential term in office at four years, is top of Nasreddin’s list. The MP wants the presidential term extended to six years, and the limit placed on the president serving more than two terms removed.

Commentators are wary of Nasreddin’s motives, with some suggesting the move is an attempt to shore up the position of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi whose popularity appears to be declining by harsh economic reforms and skyrocketing prices. They point to the changes introduced in 1980 to the 1971 constitution which were intended to extend Anwar Al-Sadat’s term in office. Sadat was assassinated the following year and it was his successor, Hosni Mubarak, who benefited from the amendment, remaining in office for three decades and leaving only when forced out by the massive uprising of 2011.

Nasreddin has announced he will hold a press conference on 20 August, attended by constitutional experts and public figures, to explain his proposals. A legal team has already finished work on draft changes to three articles, including Article 140, and is currently working on three more.

Changes to Article 103 will extend the privileges MPs enjoy by allocating additional bonuses to members of the House of Representatives, and Article 190 will be amended to reduce the prerogatives of the State Council, currently the sole authority mandated to review draft legislation.

Nasreddin would also like to remove Article 147 which obliges the president to secure the approval of a majority of MPs before dismissing the cabinet. He first proposed such a change shortly after being elected as an MP but failed to secure the necessary support in the House of Representatives to table the motion for discussion.

A former member of the dissolved National Democratic Party Nasreddin ran as an independent candidate in the Helwan constituency and once elected joined the majority, pro-regime Support Egypt coalition.

He is not alone in seeking to change the constitution. Several MPs ran on platforms that included pushing for constitutional amendments. The Egyptian Society for Protecting the Constitution was founded in March 2016 to confront such calls. It is headed by Amr Moussa who chaired the 50-member committee that drafted the 2014 constitution.

Moussa issued a statement on Saturday in response to Nasreddin’s proposals. 

“The constitution represents stability in the life of nations,” said Moussa. “Respecting the constitution is a sign of decency in political life.”

He characterised demands the constitution be changed ahead of the presidential poll as a sign of political immaturity and concluded his statement by saying “the constitution is in good hands, those of the Egyptian people, and I am positive the House of Representatives will shoulder its responsibilities and give priority to enacting the constitution, not amending it.”

Nasreddin’s proposals have divided MPs, with those in the pro-regime camp arguing that four-year presidential terms will not allow Al-Sisi to complete his reform measures and development projects and opponents to the changes saying such reforms require a regular public mandate if they are to succeed.

Legal experts are also divided. Professor of constitutional law Salah Fawzi says there is no constitutional reason why presidential terms cannot be extended while leading lawyer Essam Al-Islamboli argues “Article 226 clearly bans any changes to articles relating to the re-election of the president.”

According to Fawzi, Article 226 only limits the number of terms a president can serve rather than the length of those terms while Al-Islamboli argues “separating the number of presidential terms and the years of each term is to engage in a slippery search for legal loopholes.”

Article 226, points out Al-Islamboli, is one of the constitutional articles included in the general rulings’ final chapter and as such cannot be changed.

“Let the president stand in competitive presidential polls held in an open political climate,” legal activist Negad Al-Boraai wrote on Twitter, “for amending the constitution now will only backfire.”

“What is being proposed is a constitutional coup and not a series of amendments,” says Medhat Al-Zahed, acting chairman of the Socialist Popular Alliance Party. “The suggested amendments, if endorsed, will set back political life and promote dictatorial rule.”

“Why these legal and constitutional tricks,” asks Al-Zahed, when the absence of a competitive political environment already means Al-Sisi is guaranteed victory at the polls.

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