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Is quest to increase Egypt's presidential terms really altruistic?

Egyptian politicians and the public are skeptical about a lawmaker's attempt to lengthen the presidential term.
Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi speaks during a news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel (unseen) at the El-Thadiya presidential palace in Cairo, Egypt, March 2, 2017. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh - RTS115YV

CAIRO — A proposed constitutional amendment that would extend the Egyptian presidential term has sparked controversy in political corridors and parliament as some lawmakers question its true intent.

Parliamentarian Ismail Nasreddin submitted a proposal Feb. 25 to increase the four-year presidential term to six years. Some opponents believe the amendment is a custom-made attempt to specifically benefit President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in the event of his re-election. The Egyptian Constitution of 2014 stipulates that the president can only be re-elected once.

Nasreddin defended his proposal, arguing that the constitution allows for amendments and stating that the amendment is not about Sisi.

“Democracy rests upon the principles of majority rule,” he told Al-Monitor by phone. “This is part of the legislative revolution Egypt needs in the coming years, and aims to harmonize the government’s desired objectives with the existing legislative system."

He added, “We are a developing country. Development plans are not drafted for less than five years, and therefore the four-year presidential term is not appropriate in a state that is in need of education, health and economic reform and facing huge security challenges."

Nasreddin attacked those who criticized his proposal, saying they are defending their own private interests. He noted that he had launched a campaign in parliament to explain his reasoning and he will be addressing the media so that the public also understands.

“My proposal is not to perpetuate the president in office, but only to give him the opportunity to carry out his plans in a timely manner,” he said, noting that the public fears a repeat of the rule of former President Hosni Mubarak, who held the office for 30 years before being deposed in the January 25 Revolution.

Salah al-Din Fawzi, a member of the Higher Committee for Legislative Reform and of the 10-expert Constitutional Amendment Commission, told Al-Monitor, “According to the constitution, an amendment may be requested if endorsed by one-fifth of the [596 members] of parliament. The request must then be approved by the parliament after being discussed by the Legislative and Constitutional Affairs Committee." Then if the proposal is approved by two-thirds of parliament, it is put to a public vote.

Fawzi said this is not the first time parliament members have sought to change a president's term by amending the constitution. During the term of President Anwar Sadat, who served 11 years before being assassinated in 1981, one-third of parliamentarians proposed amendments to a previous constitution to allow a president to be elected more than twice.

He noted, “The parliament approved the amendments and put them to public referendum in May 1980. The referendum was approved by a majority of up to 98.8%. Former President Mohammed Hosni Mubarak, who came to power after the assassination of President [Anwar] Sadat, benefited from this amendment.”

That re-election rule was changed back in subsequent versions of the constitution.

Several politicians rejected Nasreddin’s proposal, and Hassan Nafaa, a professor of political science at Cairo University, described it as an attempt to sidestep the one-time-only re-election law.

“Sisi’s regime is likely behind this maneuver, and this shows that there is an attempt to prevent the presidential elections from being held on time in mid-2018,” Nafaa told Al-Monitor. He said that the proposal "is in line with the aspirations of certain circles within the regime."

In August, activist Yasser al-Turki launched a petition to gather 40 million signatures to extend Sisi’s term to eight years without presidential elections. This was confronted by a counter-petition by Issam Hajji, a former Egyptian presidential adviser for scientific affairs, to reject the proposal.

Columnist Mohamed Esmat also rejects the proposal. “Tampering with the constitution in this way detracts from the prestige of the state and undermines the standing of the parliament. It also adversely affects the whole political process in Egypt,” he wrote in a Feb. 27 column in Al-Shorouk newspaper.

Amr Hashem Rabie, the deputy director of Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, told El-Watan newspaper March 1 that extending the presidential term is a bid to take the country back to the authoritarian rule and would deal a heavy blow to the gains achieved by the January 25 and June 30 revolutions, which called for a democratic transfer of power.

Moreover, in an opinion poll by Veto Gate news website, the proposal was rejected by about 66% of the participants.

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