Geneva – Egypt is about to conduct a referendum likely to be held before the end of this month on broad constitutional amendments proposed by members of the House of Representatives and supported by the majority dominating the legislative body, while the amendments raised Egyptian citizens resentment and received strong opposition and criticism from the human rights community.
In a report on proposed constitutional amendments in Egypt, the Geneva Council for Rights and Liberties said these amendments were a recipe for strengthening authoritarianism and the one-man rule, as well as for eliminating any manifestations of democracy and opportunities for the peaceful transfer of power.
The introduction of these amendments comes under the leadership of President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi regime in the context of the worst human rights and security crisis in decades aiming to eliminate the opposition and to suppress civil society.
According to documented reports, Egyptian security systematically uses physical and psychological torture, resorts to arbitrary detentions and enforced disappearances to silence political opposition and restrict public freedoms.
Manipulating the drafting of the constitution
The new constitutional amendments were submitted to the pro-government Egyptian parliament on 3 February 2019 and were adopted by a majority of 485 votes out of a total of 596 deputies.
This was met with wide opposition from human rights and civil society organizations as well as from political parties inside and outside Egypt. Overall, the criticisms stressed that no matter what the majority of the current parliament is, it does not have the right to amend the constitution because it will express a certain political moment without regard to the majority and minority logic.
The Egyptian authorities insist that the referendum vote will be on all the amendments without fragmentation, which means that the voter will not be able to approve some of the articles and reject others.
Fearing a popular boycott, Egyptian President resorted this week to decisions to absorb the street anger and attract voters so as to pass the constitutional amendments. Thus, he decided to raise the minimum wage for all public-sector workers from 1200 to 2000 pounds (from 69.44 to 115.74 dollars).
He also approved an increase in pensions by 15% with a minimum of 150 pounds and raised the minimum pension to 900 pounds.
He decided in addition to grant all public-sector workers an extra special allowance of 150 pounds “to address inflationary effects at the wage level”, plus a periodic allowance of between 7 and 10% of the wage with a minimum of 75 pounds.
The current constitution was adopted in Egypt in 2014, a year after the deposing and imprisonment of former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi along with hundreds of political opponents so far.
Absolute power and perpetuation of Al-Sisi rule
The proposed amendments to the constitution in Egypt allow al-Sisi to remain in office for an additional 12 years after the eight-year limit set by the constitution, which stipulates the formation of a Council of all judicial bodies, to be headed by the president, who will have the authority to appoint the president of the Supreme Constitutional Court and the Attorney-General.
The amendments also require the military’s approval for the appointment of the Minister of Defence by the President of the republic and the addition of “the protection of the civil nature of the State” to the constitutional competences of the military establishment.
Egypt’s current constitution states: “The President of the Republic shall be elected for a four-year term starting from the day following the expiry of his predecessor’s term and may be re-elected only once”. The new amendments allow for the extension of the president’s term from 4 to 6 years.
The amendments also include a “transitional clause” that would allow the current president, after his term, to run for two more terms. They therefore pave the way for the survival in power of al-Sisi, whose second term will end in 2022, until 2034.
With these amendments, President al-Sisi has concentrated power in his grip, tightly consolidated his personal powers and placed a barrier to the possibility of a peaceful transition of power.
A Threat to judicial independence and State institutions
The proposed amendments include granting the armed forces the authority to intervene in governance by making the military “responsible for safeguarding the constitution and democracy, preserving the main pillars of the State, its civil nature, the people’s gains, as well as individual rights and freedoms”. The appointment of the Minister of Defense will also be the prerogative of the Armed Forces Supreme Council.
In addition, the amendments would further undermine the independence of the judiciary by giving al-Sisi greater control over the appointment of senior magistrates. The authority to revise the legislation before it becomes laws by the Council of State Judges would largely be revoked.
The amendments would also give a broader jurisdiction to military courts to try civilians, reinforcing the current army-backed system and its ability to stifle public freedoms by giving the armed forces unlimited powers in a formal way, which threatens the human rights situation in the country.
Suppression of voices opposed to constitutional amendments
The Geneva Council for Rights and Liberties follows with concern the infringement of freedoms by the Egyptian authorities and the crackdown on any party opposed to the constitutional amendments, including the denial of the right to peaceful assembly such as anti-amendment demonstrations, the arrest of and incitement against dissidents, human rights activists, journalists and bloggers. This repression included the artistic family, where the Egyptian Syndicate of acting professions recently withdrew, at the urging of the authorities, the membership of actors Amr Waked and Khalid Abu al-Naga because of their participation in meetings in the US Congress pertaining to the human rights situation in Egypt and the constitutional amendments.
Egyptian authorities are implicated in the practice of intellectual and media terrorism in order to prevent any opposition to the proposed constitutional amendments and to suppress the freedom of opinion and expression, which confirms the nature of these amendments and that their real purpose is only to consolidate the regime’s authority.
On March 28, the Court of Urgent Matters in Cairo issued a decision on “canceling the organization of a vigil called for by the Civil Movement in front of the Egyptian parliament, which was scheduled on the second day after the said date to protest against the constitutional amendments”.
The court ruled in favor of the Minister of Interior decision canceling the planned vigil claiming “its threat to public security because its location is contrary to the Cairo Governorate decision No. 13867 of 2013, which determined the area of demonstrations next to Al-Fustat Park”. This, in addition to the possibility of terrorist elements mixing with the protesters and assaulting them.
The organizers of the vigil declared that it will be held before the House of Representatives and that they will commit themselves to peaceful protests, with No to Amending the Constitution as a main slogan. Their demands encompass the rejection of constitution amendments and of the violation of its ruling principles; providing an opportunity for those opposed to the amendments to express their position through real social dialogue; in addition to creating an appropriate climate for free discussion.
According to the Geneva Council for Rights and Liberties, the judicial decision to cancel the said protest contravenes international law, international conventions and customs guaranteeing freedom of expression and peaceful protest, and stipulating the need for the authorities to respect this right and not to obstruct it in any way.
The banning of this protest reflects on one hand the acknowledgment by the ruling authority in Egypt of the widespread popular and civil rejection of proposed amendments, and consolidates on the other hand an authoritarian regime that oppresses the opposition and rejects dissenting opinion.
The proposed amendments are contrary to the principles of civil and political rights
The Geneva Council for Rights and Liberties considers the proposed constitutional amendments in Egypt very restrictive. They constitute a strengthening of a more dictatorial and totalitarian regime than the previous ones in Egypt, which violates the Egyptian government’s obligations
under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, international law and international conventions.
The Council stresses that the increase of presidential term limits in the amendments before the Parliament is prohibited by article 226 of the current Constitution, which also prohibits the President of the Republic from presiding over the Supreme Council of Judicial Bodies.
The proposed amendments also affect the constitution essence, as it gives the president the right to head the Supreme Council of the Judiciary and to appoint heads of judicial bodies, which is in violation of the separation of powers principle and in conflict with the basic elements of the Constitution.
Allocating a quota for women of a quarter of the seats in the House of Representatives is also contrary to the constitutional article on the right to choose the electoral system, because it leads the legislator to choose the absolute closed list system and deprives him of the choice of another electoral system, under the pretext of ensuring women proportion. This is equally in conflict with the principle of non-discrimination between citizens, as stipulated in Article 53 of the Constitution.
The Geneva Council reaffirms that democracy is based primarily on the idea of independent authorities and institutions, and on the principle of balance of powers. The executive branch does not control the legislative or the judiciary. The legislature, though, is the supervisor and the judiciary, the arbitrator. Moreover, the task of the military establishment and the armed forces is to protect borders and to defend national territory.
Through the proposed amendments, the authority of the individual (represented by the President of the Republic) will be further strengthened with the continuing claim that this establishes the State of institutions and the will of the people. Besides that, a new special status of the military institution will be created in order for it to be controlling all aspects of political life in the future, under the slogan of protecting the State, its civil nature, and democracy, while all of that carry serious breaches of democracy and of peaceful power transfer.
The proposed amendments in eight basic points:
1 / Electing the President of the Republic for two terms for a period of six years each.
2 / Creating the post of Vice President of the Republic.
3 / Granting extended powers to the President in the selection of judicial bodies heads, the Attorney General, and the President of the Supreme Constitutional Court.
4 / Restricting the powers of the interim president and not allowing him to run for office.
5 / The establishment of a parliamentary chamber next to the House of Representatives called the Senate.
6 / Allocating a quarter of the parliamentary seats for women.
7 / Reconsidering the issue of the Minister of Defense appointment so that this authority is vested in the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.
8 / The State shall guarantee the representation of youth, Christians and persons with disabilities in the first House of Representatives elected after the adoption of constitutional amendments