CAIRO — Egypt’s parliament overwhelmingly voted on Thursday to ensure that President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi remains in office until as late as 2034, long past a constitutional term limit, while delivering him broad powers that will deepen his control over the Arab’s world’s most populous nation
Parliament Speaker Ali Abdelaal said 485 lawmakers in the 596-seat assembly — or more than the two-thirds majority needed for approval — voted in favor of the proposed constitutional amendments. The proposed changes are now headed for a review in a parliamentary committee and then will return for a second vote in the assembly.
If that passes, the proposed changes will face a national referendum by the summer.
The passage of the amendments came despite outrage by critics who feared that the measures will give unprecedented dictatorial powers to Sissi, whose term is supposed to end in 2022. The proposed amendments would extend the presidential term from four to six years while allowing Sissi to run for two additional terms. Many pro-democracy activists and critics fear that Sissi will now be able to remain president almost indefinitely. Even though weeks of discussions will take place before Sissi's path to remain in power is cleared, few expect the vast majority of lawmakers beholden to the Sissi regime to work against him.
"We know it is a done deal already," said Mohamed Zaree, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. "This is how Members of parliament pay back to the security apparatus that brought them to power."
The vote comes little more than eight years after the Arab Spring revolts here ousted President Hosni Mubarak, ending his three decades of autocratic rule. Since Sissi led the 2013 military overthrow of democratically elected Islamist President Mohamed Morsi and was elected the following year, the former armed forces commander has jailed tens of thousands of opponents and blocked hundreds of websites deemed critical of his regime.
The amendments target Egypt’s 2014 constitution, passed after Mubarak’s fall, and would undo many checks and balances designed to limit the president’s power.
Last year, Sissi was reelected but only after all his opponents were either driven out of the race, jailed or pressured in other ways. His sole nominal opponent entered the race at the 11th hour, and a few days earlier had been one of his staunchest supporters.
The rush to push through the constitutional amendments may have been motivated by an expectation that Trump Administration wouldn’t object to Sissi extending his rule, according to a report in the independent Egyptian news website Mada Masr citing official sources.
Sources quoted by the website also said the vote was intended to fly under the radar before the new Democratic-controlled House of Representatives gave attention to Egypt. So far, the White House has remained silent on the proposed amendments.
The 596-seat parliament is predominantly filled with Sissi loyalists. His supporters argue that Sissi needs several more terms to achieve his goals of modernizing Egypt and its economy and combating terrorism.
“It is not true that these amendments were suggested by members of the parliament and the president has nothing to do with them,” said Zaree. “There is only one person (in charge) in Egypt. Only Abdel Fatah al-Sissi. Public opinion in Egypt is Sissi’s opinion.”
The amendments will also enhance Sissi’s power to appoint senior judges , including the chief justice of the Supreme Court, and would erode judicial oversight on any legislation as well as the judiciary’s financial independence.
“These amendments effectively serve to destroy the constitutional separation of powers, concentrating all authority into the president’s hands and solidifying his authoritarian rule,” a group for 10 Egyptian human rights groups said in a letter this week.
The amendments also call for a 25 percent quota for women in parliament as well as adequate representation for minority Coptic Christians, youth and people with disabilities. But activist groups in their letter described the additional provisions as the government’s “disingenuous attempts to sugarcoat its authoritarian power-grab.”