Cairo, Egypt | AFP | Egypt’s parliament, packed with loyalists of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, began Tuesday a session to vote on changes to the constitution that could keep the former military chief in power until 2030.
The proposed amendments were initially introduced in February by a parliamentary bloc supportive of Sisi and updated this week after several rounds of debates.
It includes changing Article 140 of the constitution to allow the Egyptian president to extend his current four-year term, which ends in 2022, by two years.
A further change would permit Sisi to stand for another six-year term and potentially remain president until 2030.
Parliament is also due to vote on a controversial article which critics fear might allow the military a greater influence in Egyptian political life.
Pro-Sisi member of parliament Mostafa Bakry told AFP that the session “had started” and that the final voting in the 596-seat parliament, which is dominated by Sisi loyalists, would be held “later today”.
State-run Al-Ahram news website said that several MPs carried Egyptian flags as they gathered for the vote inside the parliament while nationalistic songs played in the background.
The vote is expected to be swift, after if it is passed by a majority of two thirds, parliament will then hold a referendum in which Egyptians will vote on the raft of amendments.
Sisi led the army’s overthrow of elected president Mohamed Morsi in 2013 following mass protests against the Islamist leader’s rule.
He won his first term as president in 2014 and was re-elected in March 2018 with more than 97 percent of the vote, after standing virtually unopposed.
His government has been widely criticised by human rights groups for the repression of political opponents.
But MP Mohamed Abu-Hamed, who pushed for the constitutional amendments to keep Sisi in power, is adamant that the changes to allow him to complete political and economic reforms.
“The constitution in 2014 was written under tough exceptional circumstances,” he told AFP.
He hailed Sisi as a president who “took important political, economic and security measures… (and) must continue with his reforms,” in the face of the unrest gripping neighbouring countries.
The vote comes after two veteran presidents were ousted in Algeria and Sudan and amid an escalation of the conflict in Libya.
Keeping Sisi in power, he added, reflects “the will of the people”.
– ‘Authoritarian rule’ –
Since Sisi overthrew Morsi, Egypt has drawn heavy international criticism for its sweeping crackdown on dissent.
The authorities have jailed thousands of Morsi’s supporters as well as liberal and secular activists, including a popular blogger, actors, singers and journalists.
Last week, Human Rights Watch warned that the amendments, which would also grant Sisi control over the judiciary, would “institutionalise authoritarianism”.
As Sisi visited Washington for talks with President Donald Trump, the rights watchdog urged Congress, to withhold endorsement of the Egyptian president’s bid to extend his rule.
“Congress needs to use its levers to pressure the Egyptian president to reverse course, starting with withdrawing these constitutional amendments set to consolidate authoritarian rule,” said HRW’s Michael Page.
Amnesty International last week warned that if passed the constitutional amendments “would worsen the devastating human rights crisis Egyptians are already facing.”
“They would grant President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and security forces free rein to further abuse their powers and suppress peaceful dissent for years to come,” said Amnesty’s Magdalena Mughrabi.
Other proposed amendments include a quota for women’s representation of no less than 25 percent in parliament and forming a second parliamentary chamber.
Human rights groups and opposition parties say the government has intensified its crackdown on dissent with a wave of arrests ahead of the vote.