Egyptians have approved constitutional amendments designed to consolidate the power of president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in a referendum. The process, however, was marked by widespread bribery, coercion and suppression of opponents.
The amendments will allow him to remain in office until 2030, apart from undermining judicial independence and allowing the army to intervene in political affairs.
Only 44.33% of the 61,344 voters took part in the three-day referendum out of which over 88% voted for the amendments.
Speaking to Peoples Dispatch, Mohamed A from the leftist Bread and Freedom party said, “A huge amount of forgery was done. Many people were virtually kidnapped and forced to participate in the referendum.” One more party activist was arrested in addition to the three who held recently.
Media outlets reported that people were transported to voting booths in hundreds using buses hired by MPs of the ruling party. Upon showing inked fingers, they were offered vouchers which could be exchanged for grains, groceries, oil and other basic commodities. Many of these commodities have become expensive due to austerity measures imposed by the el-Sisi government. There were also reports of voters being offered cash for casting their ballots in favor of the amendments.
Numerous shopkeepers and owners of restaurants told reporters that they were forced to advertise banners calling for a Yes vote. Videos have been uploaded on Twitter, which show passengers being stopped on the streets and coerced out of their vehicles to go out and vote.
Ahmed Badawi, a political activist campaigning against the proposed amendments, was arrested for holding a banner which read “No to changing the constitution”, and is reportedly being held in an unknown location. Opponents claim the whole process was rushed through in order to not allow them to campaign for a No vote.
The parliament, a majority of whose members belong to the ruling party, had approved of the proposed amendments by 531 to 22 votes on April 16. However, the Egyptian system requires constitutional amendments to be approved by the majority of the citizens through a referendum. Not even a week was given between the approval by the parliament and the beginning of the referendum.
Dubbed as the “Pharaoh motion,” this referendum proposed amendments to extend the president’s term from the current period of four years to six. Following this, in 2024, he can contest again for a third term, and hold office till 2030.
However, not all presidents to follow will have the privilege of contesting for a third term. Article 140 of the amended constitution states that a president cannot remain in office for more than two terms. Transitional Article 240 makes a special provision for the “current president”, who began his second term last year, to be re-elected for another six-year term.
Other amendments compromise the independence of the judiciary by allowing the president to appoint the heads of judicial authorities. Another amendment declares that the prime minister, deputies and other cabinet ministers will not be held accountable to the senate. While 25% of the seats in the house of representatives have been reserved for women, the total number of seats itself has been reduced from 596 to 450.
The other worrying amendment is to Article 200 of the constitution, and tasks the military to “preserve the constitution and democracy, maintain the basic pillars of the state and its civilian nature”. Critics have read this as an invitation for the already powerful army to intervene in the political affairs of the state.