Constitutional amendments: A decisive step towards the total oblivion of human rights in Egypt?

On February 3, 2019 the Egyptian parliament proposed a series of constitutional amendments that would involve most remarkably an extension of the presidential limit mandate, an expansion of the role of the military in the state and a further decrease of judicial independence. After two months of work on the final version of these constitutional amendments, the two further steps of the final parliamentary vote and the following popular referendum are approaching. It is in this context that debates arise surrounding the implications of this potential change and, most importantly, its concrete impact on the already vanishing human rights in Egypt.

Amnesty International’s public statement on April 8 urging the Egyptian parliament to reject the proposed constitutional amendments in reason of their “devastating consequences for human rights” rings the bells of the danger. The proposed amendments to the constitution undoubtedly represent a crucial step in Egypt’s history on multiple levels.

Naturally, many questions arise concerning the future of human rights such as freedom of expression in an epoch when, more than ever, they are already outrageously neglected.

Ranked 161th in the Reporters Sans Frontières’s 2018 World Press Freedom Index, Egypt under the current President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has been suffering from a deploring suppression of freedom of expression that takes a multiplicity of forms. In addition to arbitrary arrests of activists, journalists, bloggers, artists, writers, researchers, the state exercises a draconian state control that leaves little or no space for dissenting voices.

Numerous Human Rights Organizations unremittingly denounce the current scenario by reporting the innumerous state practices that undermine human rights. Among others, a report by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) reveals that in the first 11 months of 2018 at least 32 people were executed and 581 death sentences were issued.

Under such circumstances, one could look at these constitutional amendments as a mere reaffirmation of the existing state policy of disrespect for human rights. However, the significance of these constitutional amendments is considerable and its implications are far-reaching.

Among the major proposed changes, amended Article 140 would extend the presidential term from four to six years. Through a strategic mechanism that “resets” the current president’s clock in office, al-Sisi will thus be allowed to legally stay in power until 2034. The executive will also take increasing control over the judiciary, crippling judicial independence. In addition, the military political role’s will be expanded under amended Article 2000, making the Armed Forces responsible for “maintaining the constitution and democracy, safeguarding the basic components of the state, and its civil nature, in addition to the people’s achievements and individual rights and freedoms”.

Evidently, the language of the proposed amendments suggests a further consolidation of the president and military power, deleting for good even the last few liberal traces of the 2014 Constitution. Numerous Human Rights Organizations have expressed their concerns for the future of the country if these amendments were to be approved. Distinctly, Project on the Middle East Democracy (POMED) warns against an alarming move “towards a personalist dictatorship under al-Sisi’s control”.

Deputy Middle East and North Africa Director at Amnesty International Magdalena Mughrabi’s statement highlighting that these amendments “would grant Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and security forces free rein to further abuse their powers and suppress peaceful dissent for years to come” helps grasp the dimension of the issues at stake. While perpetuating the current overwhelming state control  that characterizes today’s Egypt, under the amended constitution any possibility of politically or legally challenge the indisputable power of the government will vanish.

As Baudouin Long, associated researcher at CEDEJ (Centre d’études et de documentation économiques, juridiques et sociales) of Cairo, highlights in a public conference on April 3 in Paris, the idea of substantial change and consolidation of power through legal instruments such as the constitution was already conceived in Mubarak’s era. Now al-Sisi proves in facts to be determined to go down this road, leading some analysts to assess al-Sisi’s government as the most repressive regime of modern Egyptian history.

In an article for Foreign Policy titled “Worse than Mubarak”, POMED’s Deputy Director for Research Amy Hawthorne and Deputy Director for Policy Andrew Miller compare the two regimes and suggest that through an institutionalization of his political system “al-Sisi is bringing a new form of totalitarianism to Egypt”.

While the Egyptian streets start being filled with banners “Vote yes” in preparation for the highly probable referendum scheduled between April 19 to 24 according to Beirut-based newspaper Al Akhbar, voices of dissent spring up. Together with the opposition remarkably expressed by the Egyptian Socialist Democratic Party, Karama Party, Conservatives Party, Tagammu Party and Reform and Development Party, prominent Egyptian figures such as the award-winning actors Amr Waked and Khaled Abol Naga condemn the proposed amendments.

Despite the current state of repression -that will likely further degenerate in the imminent future- not all Egyptians are ready to stop expressing themselves and exercising the primordial right of letting individuals’ voices and opinions freely be heard for which they have stood up for in the 2011 Revolution.

The graffiti on the walls of Zamalek neighborhood captured by the Cairo-based journalist Francesca Cicardi is one example of this strenuous resistance in the name of freedom of expression and respect for human rights.

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