Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1429, (7 - 13 February 2019)
Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Issue 1429, (7 - 13 February 2019)

Ahram Weekly

Constitutional changes afoot

A parliamentary motion seeking to amend the constitution triggers controversy in political circles, writes Gamal Essam El-Din

Many political parties and independent forces welcomed the motion submitted by more than a fifth of sitting MPs that seeks to change the 2014 constitution. The motion was approved in principle by parliament’s General Committee on Tuesday morning.

House of Representatives’ Speaker Ali Abdel-Aal said a report on the proposed changes will now be prepared by a sub-committee and made available to MPs seven days ahead of being discussed and voted in a plenary session.

“If approved by a majority of MPs the amendments will be referred to the Legislative and Constitutional Affairs Committee to be discussed in detail,” said Abdel-Aal.

Abdel-Hadi Al-Qasabi, head of the majority Support Egypt alliance and chairman of the Social Solidarity Committee, told reporters that the motion was supported by members of 16 political parties.

“They believe that the current constitution was drafted in a hurry and under international pressure, and that it is high time it be amended to reinforce Egypt’s long-term political and democratic stability,” said Al-Qasabi.

Only three political parties — the Conservatives (six seats), the Egyptian Socialist Democratic Party (four seats) and the Tagammu (two seats) — have refused to endorse the motion.

The Nour Party says it supports the changes. Mohamed Salah Khalifa, the Salafist party’s parliamentary spokesperson, told reporters the party had decided to back the changes after checking that Article 2 of the constitution concerning Sharia Law would not be changed.

Ashraf Rashad, head of the Future of Homeland Party (53 seats) and chairman of parliament’s Sports Committee, told Al-Ahram Weekly his party had long argued for the constitution to be changed.

“We were the first party to gather support for the motion and we urge all our MPs to endorse it,” said Rashad. “The 2014 constitution was drafted in haste, during a time of political turmoil, and was only an interim national charter.”

“After four years it has become clear the constitution must be amended to reinforce stability in the long run.”

Essam Khalil, leader of the Free Egyptians Party (65 MPs), insists “the new amendments not only aim to boost stability and security but to reinforce democracy by returning to a bicameral system.

“Resurrecting the old Shura Council — though under the new name of the Senate — will help widen political participation in Egypt,” he said.

“Having two houses of parliament cannot help but invigorate political life, and allocating 25 per cent of seats in parliament to women and other marginalised groups is a progressive democratic step,” argued Khalil.

Al-Ahram political analyst Atef Sidawi told the Weekly “the new batch of constitutional amendments will win overwhelming support in parliament and in a public referendum.”

 “I don’t expect the changes will face serious objections on any level,” said Sidawi. “The amendments aim to reinforce political stability by creating a more transparent and flexible system for the rotation of power, extending the presidential term from four to six years and appointing a vice president.”

“It is also self-evident that two houses will encourage more political forces to take part in parliamentary life and allow legislation to be reviewed more efficiently.”

The motion seeks to reduce the number of MPs in the House of Representatives from 596 to 450, and create a Senate with 250 seats.

Majority bloc leader Al-Qasabi says “MPs believe that changing Article 140 to increase the president’s term from four to six years is necessary to give the elected president time to implement his election programme.”

Al-Ahram political analyst Amr Hashem Rabie says that “when the current 247-article constitution was being drafted in 2013 it was thought that if we copied the US, where the president is elected for just four years, it would send the message that we were moving towards an American-style democracy and so contain international pressure which was critical at that time.”

Rabie also argues “the old Shura Council” was dissolved in 2013 on budgetary grounds, and because it had been exploited by the Muslim Brotherhood in 2012 and 2013 to pass its religious agenda.

“What has now become clear is that the House of Representatives, with a record number of seats but with many MPs lacking experience, needs to be supplemented by a second parliamentary body,” said Rabie.

The motion proposes a 250-seat Senate, two thirds of its members selected by election and the remaining third comprised of presidential appointees. Members will sit for five years and be entrusted with debating the budget, development plans, constitutional affairs and foreign agreements.

The opposition 25-30 bloc has rejected the motion. Gamal Al-Sherif, spokesperson for the left-leaning 16-member group, says “the amendments represent an assault on the principle of the rotation of power by allowing President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi to run after his second term ends in 2022, and will undermine the independence of the judiciary and the media.”

Sidawi believes the constitutional amendments must have been given a green light by the president before being submitted to parliament. “They may be passed as they are or might change a little, but in all events they have come at the right time and meet a pressing need,” he says.

Yasser Qoura, a leading member of the Wafd Party, told the Weekly that “the Wafd strongly supports the changes.”

Alaa Wali, head of parliament’s Housing Committee and deputy chairman of the Future of Homeland Party, insists the consensus among MPs that Egypt’s 2014 constitution be amended is growing.

“The amendments are likely to pass easily through the House,” he says, though one or two could be subject to some tweaking.

“Many MPs object to changing the constitution to allocate 25 per cent of seats in parliament to women and argue the move could be ruled unconstitutional.”

The motion seeks to revoke articles 212 and 213 which regulate the National Press Organisation and the National Media Organisation. According to Wali, some MPs would like to see articles 18, 19, 21 and 23, which stipulate the proportion of GDP to be spent on healthcare, education, university education and scientific research, go the same way, on the grounds they set unrealistic targets.

Bahaaeddin Abu Shokka, chairman of the Legislative and Constitutional Affairs Committee which is expected to hold a month of hearing sessions on the proposed changes, told the media that Article 140 on presidential terms will be subject to particular study.

MP Rashad Shoukri told the Weekly “the constitution is not the Quran or Bible.”

“Egypt needs constitutional amendments to make the country more stable and democratic,” he said.

“The current constitution was drafted in troubled times, and under tremendous pressure to serve an interim period. Now is the right time for some articles to be reconsidered. And in the end it will be for the Egyptian people to vote in favour of the amendments or reject them,” said Shoukri.

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