Egypt’s parliament is to vote on a bill of sweeping constitutional changes this week that would increase President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi’s power and allow him to rule until 2030.
MPs are expected to overwhelmingly confirm the bill on Tuesday, triggering a referendum. The proposed reforms, which were moved swiftly through committee hearings and parliamentary debates, would grant Sisi control over the judiciary, increase the military’s political power and extend presidential terms to six years.
The former general, who became president in 2014 after a coup the previous year, was re-elected in 2018 with 97.8% of the vote. His attempt to extend his rule comes as autocrats in neighbouring Sudan and Algeria have fallen to popular protests after decades in power.
Posters urging Egyptians to vote yes to the proposed changes began appearing across Cairo more than a week ago. “A bright future, a better tomorrow,” declared one poster. “Yes to the constitutional amendments. Yes to stability and development,” extolled another, showing Sisi’s face and a bright red tick within an ornate frame.
No banners showing dissent were visible on the streets, and members of the country’s fragile opposition said they were prevented from campaigning openly.
“Right now the country needs stability, and from what I understand, these constitutional amendments will bring stability,” said Mohamed al-Sharkawi, a restaurant owner who hung a banner of support for a yes vote in his restaurant.
During a hearing in February, 485 out of 596 MPs voted to advance the bill. What little criticism was permitted in previous debate stages, during which one MP described the changes as “medieval” and said they would aid autocratic rule, has since been all but silenced.
Egypt’s only independent media outlet, Mada Masr, said a national dialogue on the changes included only those who “appear to have been hand-picked to include no opposition voices”.
Instead, most MPs restricted their criticisms to a package of proposed changes designed to sweeten the vote, such as introducing a 25% quota of parliamentary seats for women.
Khaled Dawoud, of the opposition Constitution party, said the sudden support for a referendum that had yet to be declared “proves the entire process is a ploy and that the result is known in advance. It’s not just that a date hasn’t been set, but even the final draft of the amendments hasn’t yet been approved by parliament.”
A coalition of the Constitution party and the Civil Democratic Movement which was created to oppose the changes said its attempts to show dissent had been suffocated. Ten Constitution party members were arrested for opposing the amendments.
“A total of nearly 120 people were arrested from legal opposition parties and other pro-democracy groups,” Dawoud said.
The parliamentary speaker, Ali Abdel Aal, told the Ahram Online news outlet the referendum could begin as soon as 22 April, a week after the proposed vote. “In ruling circles the referendum is being seen as a vote of confidence in President al-Sisi and his regime,” he said.
“It’s depressing,” said Tarek Salama, a former member of the pro-government Free Egyptians party, who used social media to call on people to vote against the changes. “All of this is completely organised by the security services,” he said. “It’s about giving the impression that everyone will say yes – it’s not about whether it moves people or not.”
Egyptian authorities repeatedly blocked a website that had reportedly garnered more than 100,000 signatures in opposition to the changes.
Salama said: “If Sisi would allow a free referendum, he would win, but with an image that he’s a democrat. But you have to understand, he wants to prove he’s strong.”
One 32-year-old man, who was not named for safety reasons, told the Guardian he would vote for the first time in years. “I’m going to vote, just so I can vote no,” he said. “I’m not hopeful, but I won’t forgive myself if I don’t go.”
Timothy Kaldas, of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, said the referendum presented a rare opportunity to show dissent at the ballot box, despite few expectations the process would be fair. “Unlike opposition candidates in the last election, the government can’t imprison the word no,” he said.
Additional reporting by Adham Youssef