CAIRO — Egyptian lawmakers on Tuesday approved sweeping changes in the country’s constitution to extend President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi’s rule and give him unprecedented powers, cementing his authoritarian grip on the Arab world’s most populous nation.
The vote was widely expected: The parliament is dominated by Sissi’s loyalists, and Sissi’s regime has widely silenced any dissension to the constitutional amendments. It has arrested opponents of the changes and sought to stamp out an online campaign against them by shutting down its website. It has also blocked or partly blocked tens of thousands of other websites and domain names to restrict online content that allowed Egyptians access to the opposition campaign.
The new constitutional amendments, which were quickly pushed through parliamentary hearings and debates over a few weeks, will now be to put to a public referendum, which is scheduled to take place over three days and could begin as early as next week. But critics say a free and fair vote is unlikely, given the government’s wide-scale efforts to suppress the opposition.
“We know that the vast majority of Egyptians do not support these amendments, but a free and fair vote will be almost impossible,” Dina Darwish, an Egyptian American physician and activist, said in a statement. “Many Egyptians fear for what will happen if they do not support Sissi. When a vote is based on fear, it is not a democratic vote.”
If a majority of Egyptians vote in favor, it would extend presidential terms to six years. So Sissi’s current term would be extended by two more years, and he would be permitted to run once again in 2024. That means, in theory, that Sissi could remain in power until 2030.
When President Trump, during a meeting with Sissi last week at the White House, was asked about what human rights groups describe as a power grab in Egypt, Trump described Sissi as “a great president” and said that “he’s doing a great job.”
Sissi would also receive new powers to appoint judges as well as the public prosecutor, in effect handing him control over the judiciary. The proposed changes also include amending the constitution to state that the military’s role is to protect “the constitution and democracy.” Critics said that would allow the military, which Sissi once led and remains the force behind his presidency, to influence politics and expand its power.
The measures to bolster Sissi’s influence stand in sharp contrast to the populist revolts in Algeria and Sudan that have toppled long-ruling dictators in recent weeks and are now seeking to oust the entire political and military elite in their nations.
If the constitutional changes are approved in the referendum, Sissi’s critics fear that his rule — already considered the most authoritarian in Egypt’s modern history — will deepen the ongoing evisceration of freedoms, rights and the rule of law. Sissi’s regime has jailed tens of thousands of critics and opponents, all but obliterated independent media and shut down hundreds of websites deemed critical of his presidency.
“It is absolutely unacceptable to interfere in the judicial affairs this bluntly,” said a 39-year-old doctor who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he fears becoming a target of the regime. “These amendments all serve the benefit of one man, a one-man’s rule.”
Sissi’s supporters insist that his rule needs to be extended to allow him more time to implement economic reforms, finish large development projects including the construction of a new administrative capital, and fight terrorism, notably an active Islamic State branch centered in the northern Sinai region of the country.
“There has to be an infrastructure in the country for the youth to have a better future,” said Ahmad Abdel Baqy Metwally, 62, a retired government employee. “I want Sissi to continue, because he is an expert on security. Had not it been for him, we would have been living in chaos and massacres now.”
Sissi, a retired army general and armed forces commander, became president in 2014, a year after he led a military coup that toppled Egypt’s elected Islamist leader, Mohamed Morsi. In 2018, Sissi was reelected in an election in which all of his credible opponents were driven out of the contest through arrests, intimidation or the absence of a level playing field.
More than a week ago, posters and banners emerged across Cairo and in other cities urging Egyptians to vote yes for the proposed constitutional changes — even though no date has yet been set for the vote. Many were emblazoned with Sissi’s visage, with a bright red check mark next to it.
“Yes to the constitutional amendments for a better future for Egypt,” read one banner.
In several drives around Cairo in recent days, not a single “No” poster could be seen. Egypt’s weak opposition and pro-democracy activists have said they have been stymied from openly campaigning.
Earlier this month, leading Egyptian opposition figures launched an online campaign called Batel, which in Arabic means “void,” to allow Egyptians a forum to oppose the proposed changes. But a day after the online petition was launched — it had reached 60,000 signatures within 12 hours, its organizers said — the government blocked the website.
The website could still be accessed from abroad and through a VPN or an encrypted messaging app. By Tuesday, the number of signatures had reportedly reached more than 250,000. Then, the Sissi government blocked or partly blocked 34,000 more websites and domain names to prevent Egyptians from joining the “void” campaign, according to Netblocks.org, an independent, nonpartisan civil society group working for digital rights and freedoms.
“Thirty-four thousand domains blocked by Egypt to prevent opposition to a referendum. There is no legitimacy, just brute force,” Wael Easkandar, a well-known Egyptian blogger and activist, said in a tweet Tuesday.
Many of Sissi’s opponents fear the worst if the amendments are approved and legitimized by the referendum.
“We are concerned that these constitutional amendments will be the final step toward transforming Egypt into a fully autocratic state, with extreme human rights violations and failures in all aspects of life for many years to come,” Ayman Nour, a leading opposition politician currently living in exile in Turkey, said in a statement.
“The amendments would end any hope for a safe transition of Egypt to democracy and would take Egypt to decades of failure and instability,” he wrote.