Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who carried out the coup d’état in 2013 against Egypt’s first freely elected civilian President Muhammed Morsi, consolidated his power further with a snap referendum held in late April.
Although many analysts and observers cast doubt on the figures related to the popular vote, according to Egypt’s election commission, the turnout was 44.33%, and 88.83% of voters approved the constitutional amendments, extending al-Sisi’s rule until 2030 and increasing his sphere of influence over both legislative and judiciary bodies.
Eight years after a pro-democracy uprising that ended the autocrat Hosni Mubarak’s three-decade rule, these changes are considered by analysts as a headlong plunge into autocracy, in which freedoms are being restricted, the opposition is being harassed and a climate of fear is being created.
These amendments granted an additional two more years to President al-Sisi’s current four-year term, while removing any obstacles in the way of his re-election for a third and probably a fourth term in 2030.
The main argument of his supporters in the referendum campaign was that extending presidential terms while al-Sisi was in the office would help to enhance the country’s stability and security.
The Egyptian opposition, however, held that these provisions contradicted Article 226 of the Constitution, which imposes certain limits on amending the constitutional text for the purpose of re-electing a president.
Activists, especially those associated with the Jan. 25, 2011 uprising, perceived these amendments as a betrayal of their hard-fought struggle for “bread, freedom and human dignity” in the Tahrir Square.
They protested the referendum on the basis that President al-Sisi was neglecting the main rationale behind the mass protests prompted in 2011, which was Mubarak’s inability to initiate a peaceful transition of power and save the country from being locked in never-ending democratization processes for three decades.
In their view, with these amendments, Egypt will have neither better economic stability nor security as propagated by al-Sisi’s supporters, but it will put Egypt, again, on a path towards a long-lasting autocratic regime and hence create more conflicts and further distrust between the state and the people.
They therefore accused al-Sisi of deceiving the Egyptian people in that he had said, during his campaign for the 2014 referendum, that Egypt would not hold another referendum for a constitutional change. But here he was, calling all Egyptians, only five years later, to the ballot box to bring about the most controversial changes since the end of Mubarak’s era.
Aside from extending the presidential term of the president, new articles adopted in the constitution will further enshrine the military’s role in all aspects of civil and political affairs, thereby instigating an autocratic military regime over the country.
The revised Article 200, for instance, asserts the military as the “guardian and protector” of the “the constitution and democracy and the fundamental make-up of the country and its civil nature, the gains of the people and the rights and freedoms of individuals”.
Likewise, while under international law the jurisdiction of military courts must be limited to trying military personnel only, the revised Article 204 now enables military court trials for civilians even when they have not committed a direct offense against military buildings or army personnel as the Constitution of 2014 previously stated.
Against this backdrop, it is noteworthy to underline again that after ousting Morsi from the presidential office, al-Sisi has surrounded himself with former military men, just as Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak have done in the past. For instance, he has appointed 19 generals as provincial governors on top of the existing six, who had been appointed immediately after the coup in August 2013.
Twenty-seven of Egypt’s current provinces are now exclusively governed by military or police generals. Egypt observers and analysts state that such a policy has brought back Mubarak’s trademark tactics, which is to use the governorship position to cultivate the loyalty of top officers while extending the grip of his police state.
However, what differentiates al-Sisi from his predecessors is that he has neither the charisma nor the political acumen to indicate any significant change of policy, or the ability to pave the way for something new.
Nasser and Sadat, for instance, always presented clear policies that their rhetoric was meant to serve. Additionally, they had the charisma to pass their message to as many people as possible to drop hints about which way the wind would be blowing.
The only similarity that al-Sisi has with his predecessors is that he has also forged a hierarchical structure in which the military officers occupy and control the presidential establishment. Nonetheless, even the military do not hold him in high regard.
Since 2017, for instance, he has replaced over 130 high-ranking state and military officials, among them the country’s defense and interior ministers, as well as the chief intelligence officer, to keep an even stronger grip on the military institution.
By making these moves, al- Sisi is trying to establish himself as if there were no alternatives to him. This is happening while regional and international geopolitical and economic forces are turning a blind eye to his authoritarian regime.
It is important to understand what al-Sisi’s leadership represents for Egypt today. He is surely not in the path of Nasser and thus nurtures no desire to promote Arab nationalism, nor is he following in the footsteps of either Sadat or Mubarak in their balancing act of the various geopolitical and socioeconomic dynamics in the country.
Al-Sisi merely exemplifies a leader who constantly maneuvers to stay relevant through the support of a select military class behind closed doors as well as some international forces. The latter do not want their power to be questioned by the masses, nor are they willing to engage in a battle for influence with any other emerging bloc.
What al-Sisi embodies, therefore, is a leader with a malleable character, which the dominating forces in Egypt, as well as regional and international powers, find useful to pass agendas that would otherwise be completely unacceptable to the Egyptian people.
These forces are scared that without him, Egypt, as one of the most populated countries in the Middle East, has the potential to adopt a more independent course of action.
In this regard, the recent constitutional amendments have left a constitutional vacuum in the country. The January 2011 uprising in Egypt had represented a rare hope that Egypt, for the first time, would complete its democratic transition and reinforce the rule of law, respect the principle of separation of powers, and protect the human rights of the Egyptian people.
Alas, this referendum resurrected the autocratic status quo. However, it is in time that we will see if al-Sisi would also fall prey to his own constitutional amendments, as every other Egyptian leader before him did.