02/15/2019, 16.32
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First step towards constitutional reform that would allow al-Sisi to stay in power beyond 2030

With the vote of 485 members in the 596-seat chamber, Parliament begins the process of strengthening the powers of the president. In addition to extending terms limits, changes would enhance the role of the Armed Forces in the country’s political life. For an Egyptian activist, Sisi runs the country like a "military unit”, but for Fr Rafic, power still lies with voters.

Cairo (AsiaNews) – A package of constitutional reforms before Egypt’s parliament could, if approved, allow President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi to remain in power past 2030.

For some critics, this would open the door to authoritarianism and a "military" takeover of the country. Mina Thabet is one of them. A Christian Egyptian activist and a former leader of the Maspero Youth Union, he is currently in charge of freedom and minorities programmes at the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF).

Others, like Fr Rafic Greiche, spokesperson for the Egyptian Catholic Church, preach caution since "the legislation has not yet been approved and ratified by referendum. People have not yet voted.”

Egyptian lawmakers voted overwhelmingly on Thursday to extend term limits for President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi. Some 485 members of the 596-seat parliament backed the package of constitutional amendments, which would also further enshrine the military's role in national politics.

The Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee will now be able to discuss the reforms for 60 days before returning them to Parliament for a final vote, which should not pose a problem to the president since it is controlled by his loyalists. A referendum will likely take place before early May, at the start of Ramadan, to bring the process to a close.

Reacting to the reform package, a group of politicians, activists and civil society groups released an open letter describing the move as illegal. In their view, the changes would sanction the country’s slide towards authoritarianism, eight years after pro-democracy protesters forced out of power then President Hosni Mubarak.

In April 2018, Sisi, a former Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, was re-elected to a second four-year mandate. During his first, positive changes have occurred in terms of the economy, infrastructure, defence, and in principle, religion. Yet, much remains to be done in terms of social and political rights.

According to his critics, the president is using stability and economic growth to crackdown on dissent and limit civil liberties.

For Fr Rafic Greiche, spokesperson for the Egyptian Catholic Church, the approval process "is before Parliament" and "in all likelihood the text will undergo changes" before the referendum. "The road is thus long. More fundamentally, Sisi still has to go to the polls and get the votes.

The clergyman sees no danger of "authoritarianism, because power lies with voters. And reforms are much broader and include a second chamber, the Senate, a vice-president, and more Christians and women in Parliament."

For Fr Rafic, "Sisi has done a lot, especially in the fight against terrorism and infrastructures. Of course, the risk of attacks has not been eliminated, but there is greater security. And the country is developing. In the streets, the energy sector, industry . . . we have only just started along a development path that should have started 40 years ago."

For activist Mina Thabet, who is now in London, things look different from the time of the uprising that led to the fall of former Islamist president Mohamed Morsi. "We cannot talk about reform or constitutional amendment but rather of an attack against democracy.”

Sisi “is trying to use the popular support he gained when he drove the Muslim Brotherhood out of power by playing the role of saviour of the fatherland. In reality, he has muzzled public life, denying and repressing civil liberties. The road is now open to him to become the next Egyptian dictator."

The activist notes that voting can do little to keep him from hanging onto power because at the last election "there was no leader capable of standing up to him".

"In Egypt there is a lack of democratic culture, which is not just about the voting process, but about the whole system. People are closely monitored, afraid to speak out. Their conversations and even their most intimate relationships ae under surveillance."

"Here we are not just talking about staying in power for another 10-15 years, but about an unprecedented power grab at the expense of other branches of government, including the judiciary.”

“The president thinks he is in charge of a military unit, not the leader of a country whose problems he cannot solve.”

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