Egypt’s New Constitutional Amendments: Moving toward Totalitarianism

The votes are in, the results have been tallied, and the outcome—never in doubt—is clear: government-proposed changes to Egypt’s 2014 constitution, rushed through parliament to ensure possibly the virtual rule for life of the incumbent president, Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, have carried the day by a margin of 89 to 11 percent. But behind these sunny numbers lies a darker story of creeping authoritarianism and growing public discontent, and many questions remain about the ultimate impact of the amendments on the politics and future of the country. What at first might appear to be a convincing display of the government’s power masks worrying signs of weakness, with important implications for the future of a key US ally.

What Were the Amendments, and What Did They Change?

The amendments in question were intended to make wide-ranging changes in the scope of executive and military authority and were put to a vote in a national referendum April 19-22, the dates for which were announced after brief debate and a mere 24 hours after Egypt’s parliament passed the amendments package on April 16.

According to a breakdown by the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, the amendments were designed to do three things:

  • First, lengthen presidential terms from four years to six, including, retroactively, the current four-year term of the incumbent, Sisi. In addition, this allows Sisi to run again in 2024, notionally enabling him to remain in office until 2030.
  • Second, vastly enhance the role of the Egyptian armed forces in the political life of the country, tasking them with “safeguarding the constitution and democracy, maintaining the foundations of the state and its civilian nature, the gains of the people, and the rights and freedoms of the individual.” This amendment also expands the already extensive power granted to military courts to try civilians accused of attacks against the military.
  • Third, increase presidential control of the judiciary, allowing the president to appoint the president of the Supreme Constitutional Court (which is exclusively competent to determine the constitutionality of all laws and regulations), the heads of the various judicial bodies, and the prosecutor-general. Another important provision allows the president to chair the Supreme Council for Judicial Bodies and Entities, which runs administrative affairs for the judiciary system.

Taken together, the amendments effectively eliminate judicial independence and concentrate unprecedented power in the hands of the current president and his successors (barring further constitutional changes). They also formally establish the armed forces as the most powerful political force in the country, above the law and virtually with no accountability. The constitutional changes have thus moved Egypt decisively away from the authoritarianism of the Hosni Mubarak years and the illiberal democracy under former president Mohamed Morsi, pushing the country toward an unabashedly totalitarian model.

The constitutional changes have thus moved Egypt decisively away from the authoritarianism of the Hosni Mubarak years and the illiberal democracy under former president Mohamed Morsi, pushing the country toward an unabashedly totalitarian model.

Behind the Numbers

While the results of the referendum suggested overwhelming public support for the amendments, this is far from being the case. In fact, the numbers themselves provide significant reason for doubt on this score. Previous referenda on constitutional amendments held in 2007, 2011, and 2012 registered percentages of “no” votes between 23 and 36 percent, which makes the 11 percent range (mentioned above) a striking anomaly that lacks credibility. Similarly, the claimed turnout of 44 percent is significantly higher than in previous such votes and was likely inflated to lend greater legitimacy to the dubious results. There is little photographic or video evidence of crowds at the polls, and interviews with journalists and voters likewise fail to support official accounts of thronged polling places. (In one memorable incident, a plainclothes security officer was caught on video attempting to force a man into a voting station.)

Indeed, bribery and intimidation, two of the government’s favorite go-to tactics, had a lot to do with the final reported results. Human rights organizations and other independent observers reported unidentified individuals handing out bags of food in exchange for voting, and lawmakers reportedly hired transport to bring people to the polling stations. Pro-government businesses were allegedly induced to deliver their employees to cast votes for the constitutional changes, most likely under threat of disciplinary action or even losing their jobs. Government-controlled media outlets blared an unremitting diet of patriotic exhortations in support of the package of amendments.

This did not prevent the opposition from expressing itself: a group of ten leftist and secular parties banded together to denounce the amendments, branding them an “assault on democracy.” A group calling itself “Freedom for Egypt” mounted a guerrilla campaign by raising banners and scrawling “no” messages in public places and posting photos of their handiwork online. In Washington, prominent Egyptian actors Amr Waked and Khaled Abol Naga met with US congressional representatives and advocated publicly against both the amendments and the advance of tyranny in Egypt. They movingly appealed for international solidarity with Egyptians, who are being told by their government that, as Waked put it, “nobody cares about you anymore.”

In the runup to the referendum, several human rights organizations documented numerous instances of official intimidation of amendment opponents, including arrests, detention, and forced disappearances.

In the runup to the referendum, several human rights organizations documented numerous instances of official intimidation of amendment opponents, including arrests, detention, and forced disappearances. Human Rights Watch said the government arrested at least 160 dissidents in February and March alone and blocked 34,000 websites that protested the amendments, including the online “Void” campaign whose petition against the amendments garnered 60,000 signatures in a few hours before it was switched off on April 9. The regime ordered official media not to report on the protests while directing a pro-amendment propaganda campaign designed to resemble a grassroots movement. Abol Naga and Waked—the latter had been previously sentenced to eight years in absentia for his political views—were summarily banned from the Egyptian actors’ union after their appearance in Washington.

Why These Amendments? Why Now?

The haste with which the government moved to ram through the amendments, and their nature, suggest that the Sisi regime is more nervous than confident regarding what the future holds. The 2018 presidential election that returned Sisi to power for another four-year term offered abundant signs of his unpopularity. This was underscored by the government’s preemptive crackdown on opposition and the alacrity with which it quashed all credible electoral opponents—that is, before finally settling on a little known politician who identified himself as a Sisi supporter to run against the president to give the election a veneer of credibility. For Egypt’s generals, the lesson of the Arab Spring seems to have been that allowing even limited political freedom can invite destabilizing chaos and the loss of power; the new constitutional amendments are part of a years-long drive to close political space and crush dissent before it can spin out of control. Once more, the amendment process has thus served to underscore the fundamental political weakness of the regime.

Alarming political developments elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa may have helped hasten Sisi’s push to consolidate power. The forced resignation of Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Algeria and the ouster of long-time Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir after mass demonstrations against their rule no doubt alarmed the generals in Cairo, and it cannot have been lost on them that the protesters in Algiers and Khartoum continued demonstrating for inclusive, civilian-led post-dictatorship governments and against military rule, such as occurred in Egypt. This may have been one motivating factor behind the amendment to elevate the army’s role in politics—a way to insulate the military from protest and legitimize its supremacy.

In addition to inoculating the regime against any possible legal or political challenge, the amendments may also help set conditions for Egypt to play a more assertive role on the regional stage.  

In addition to inoculating the regime against any possible legal or political challenge, the amendments may also help set conditions for Egypt to play a more assertive role on the regional stage. The White House is apparently counting on Cairo to help deliver Arab support for its long-awaited Middle East peace plan. Egypt is also becoming more aggressive in Libya by backing the renegade general Khalifa Haftar, who has declared war on the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli. (Sisi may have helped persuade President Trump to suddenly reverse his own administration’s previous support for the GNA and support Haftar on April 19.) Egypt may also be preparing to flex its muscles regarding Nile riparian rights if the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project threatens to reduce Egypt’s share of Nile water. In all these cases—and especially if Egypt were to become embroiled in military conflict with neighbors to the west or south—Cairo will need to have its house in order to focus on external challenges without the distraction of domestic political opposition.

Green Light from the White House

In extending his power and term in office, Sisi can be sure he will not face opposition from one important quarter: the Trump White House. Indeed, the Trump Administration appears to have gone out of its way to imply its endorsement of the amendment process, inviting Sisi to a largely substance-free meet-and-greet with the president in the Oval Office on April 9, not long before the voting in Egypt began. Trump took the opportunity to extol Sisi for “doing a great job” while feigning ignorance of the constitutional amendment process, unmistakably signaling to Sisi and the Egyptian public that the United States backed the effort. Trump appears to appreciate the utility of Egyptian authoritarianism when it comes to getting business done, and thus the amendments package, far from raising warning flags for the administration, may actually have bolstered Sisi’s image in the White House.

But Will It Work? History Says No

For all the success the regime seems to have enjoyed in steamrolling the opposition while relentlessly steering Egypt toward an ever more repressive governing model, the strategy by no means guarantees a placid future for military rule on the Nile. The experience of the Hosni Mubarak regime demonstrates that a stagnant political system that ignores the aspirations of its people is prone to sudden upheaval. By adopting far more repressive policies than did Mubarak—not only by rigging the constitution in its favor but by criminalizing peaceful political expression, crushing civil society, and vastly expanding the population of political prisoners as well as employing torture and extrajudicial killing—the Sisi regime is attempting to ensure short-term stability at the risk of longer-term disaster.

The experience of the Hosni Mubarak regime demonstrates that a stagnant political system that ignores the aspirations of its people is prone to sudden upheaval.

The constitutional amendments are moving Egypt toward a true dictatorship centered in the person of Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, an arrangement that seems to project strength but is ultimately a source of weakness and eventually a cause of catastrophic failure. “Personalist dictatorships that concentrate power in a single individual may look durable, but are actually more vulnerable to chaotic collapse than other types of regimes,” the Project on Middle East Democracy has noted. “By closing off all peaceful means for the public to change the Egyptian government or to express its grievances, these amendments will create a veritable pressure cooker in which any and all dissent could result in turmoil and unrest.”

Looking Toward Congress

Given the White House’s complicity with these political developments in Egypt and its general indifference to the regime’s human rights record, it is now up to Congress to focus attention on the deteriorating situation of civic and political freedoms in the country. Congress must continue to turn a critical eye on the administration’s military aid requests from Egypt, ensuring human rights conditionality in appropriations and withholding aid where necessary. If it helps, legislators might look at the situation in another way, too: are US taxpayer dollars well spent on an ally that frequently lets Washington down? The Egyptian announcement that Cairo would not participate in the administration’s cherished Middle East Strategic Alliance, made literally as Sisi was leaving the United States after his Oval Office meeting with Trump, provides plenty of food for thought.

Above all, Congress must now be the official voice in Washington for Egypt’s oppressed population. It is more crucial than ever before to communicate to the brave men and women who have the courage to confront Egypt’s dictatorial ruling class that they are not alone and not forgotten.

Charles Dunne is a Non-resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about him and read his previous publications click here