Speaker of Egypt's House of Representative's Ali Abdel Al addresses the House. (Photo by Mohamed Mostafa)

Egypt’s Constitutional Amendments: A Nail in the Coffin of Political Pluralism

04/04/2019 . By Yasmin Omar

The Egyptian government is currently in the midst of amending its constitution, with grave consequences for the short-lived political pluralism that blossomed in the wake of the 2011 revolution. The amendments, if passed, will allow President Abdel-Fattah El Sisi to pursue up to two consecutive six-year terms after his current term ends in 2022. In addition to extending Sisi’s presidency to an effective lifetime, the amendments will also grant the executive authority over the judiciary and open the door to creating a totalitarian state. While these amendments fail to adhere to legal norms (as they breach Egypt’s existing constitution and international legal obligations), they also have wider implications for Egyptian political parties and freedom of association.

From a legal perspective, it should not be hard to establish a political party in Egypt today. Law No. 40 of 1977 on political parties (which was amended by the Supreme Council of Armed Forces in 2011) states that the party should have a distinguishing title, principles and goals in line with the constitution and national security, a nondiscrimination policy for membership, not be a branch of a foreign political entity; and have legitimate funding sources. If it fulfills these requirements, a hopeful party notifies the judiciary’s Party Affairs Committee by sending its internal regulations and principles, accompanied by 5,000 signatures. If the committee gives no response within 30 days, the party is considered established.

This is the same process by which dozens of parties, representing a variety of political views, were established after the 2011 revolution—an unprecedented political mobility. But since shortly after the revolution, both law and practice have chipped away at political parties’ ability to organize themselves and engage in the democratic process, and what rights they still possess are threatened by constitutional amendments that will effectively extend Sisi’s time in office and his control over both the legislative and judicial branches. In understanding the state of political parties today, an exploration into political developments beginning in 2013 is particularly instructive.

Sisi’s Rise: Political Dynamism under Threat

Political tension beginning in 2013—and particularly after the military seized authority on June 30, 2013—diminished political parties’ performance. Amid shifting power dynamics, some parties decided to ignore their ideological banners in order to preserve a limited nominal existence by turning a blind eye toward human rights violations and the suffocation of the public sphere. These parties included those of previously diverse affiliations, such as the New Wafd Party—which participated in the formation of the first government that followed the coup and in the constituent assembly that wrote the country’s constitution—the ostensibly liberal Free Egyptians Party, and the Salafist Nour Party. All of these parties supported Sisi’s candidacy in the 2014 presidential election.

On the other hand, some of the left-wing and center-left parties chose to ally in the face of oppressive measures by the state. The Democratic Current, a coalition that was formed in 2014, brought together parties such as the Constitution Party, the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, the Bread and Liberty Party (which is legally “under establishment,” meaning all necessary measures have been taken to register but without formal acknowledgement of registration), and others. The Democratic Current demonstrated against authoritarianism by publicly opposing the Protest Law, military trials for civilians, the crackdown against civil society foundations, and Sisi’s election to the presidency in 2014. Other parties did not join the Democratic Current but did oppose Sisi, such as the Strong Egypt Party, a progressive Islamist party which boycotted the 2014 presidential elections.

2014: The Writing on the Wall

Since then, opposition parties have been paying a very expensive price. After securing the presidency, Sisi began to eliminate any formal political opposition and would eventually expand repressive measures to cover larger segments of the population. Members of parties who did not toe the official line faced arrests, forcible disappearance, or even murder—as was the case with Shaimaa al-Sabbagh, a Socialist Popular Alliance Party member who was killed by police during a march in memory of the 2011 revolution.

In 2014, before the seating of a parliament, Sisi passed a new parliamentary elections law, which favored individual candidates over political parties. By limiting the organization of parties in this way, the law favored those with deep ties to state institutions or prominent tribes and families of Upper Egypt and the Delta. This dynamic paved the road for the groups, parties, and individuals aligned with state power to form powerful alliances—primary among them “For the Love of Egypt” coalition, which was led by a former intelligence officer and was able to take the plurality of seats. On the other hand, the parties that had formed immediately prior to the revolution and in its aftermath faced an uphill battle. Parties that cooperated with the coup were included in state-led plans for parliamentary domination, at the expense of their independence. Smaller parties that had opposed Sisi’s expansion of power, such as those in the Democratic Current, continued to be harassed. Many chose to boycott the elections. Those that did participate gained few seats.

Strategies of Neutralization: Co-opting, Marginalizing, and Repressing

The electoral framework and the weakening of independent parties set the stage for an effective clearing of formal, political organizing against Sisi and the state’s projects. This continued in a variety of ways, from the co-opting of political discourse within the House of Representatives through the aforementioned state-aligned blocs, to marginalization of parties through administrative means, to direct repression. Members of the Strong Egypt Party, for example, were banned from travel and have had their funds seized. The party’s vice-president, Muhammad al-Qassas, was forcibly disappeared and accused of joining a terrorist group in February 2018. Strong Egypt’s president, Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh was also arrested and faces possible charges of terrorism and inciting against the state. While the party has not been banned, any attempts to hold meetings fail, as the headquarters and offices have been closed, and security orders have prevented them from being able to rent any alternative space.

The Bread and Liberty Party, which announced its founding in 2013, opposes the state’s violations of freedom of expression and assembly and advocates for issues including a higher minimum wage and minority rights. Since the party took steps towards its formation, it has, to this day, received no response on their efforts to legally register, despite their notification of formation and ongoing collection of notarized signatures in compliance with the law. Party founders Elham Aidarous, Suzanne Nada, and Mousa Abu Kareen face interrogations on accusations that they are running an illegitimate entity, based on a complaint filed by a pro-regime lawyer. The same lawyer has also filed a case in state council demanding the prohibition of the party’s activities. Many of the party’s members have been arrested and convicted because of their political affiliation or for posting opinions on social media. To further complicate matters, the party has had difficulty collecting the necessary signatures as many notary offices refuse to ratify signatures for the party based on security orders.

The Free Egyptians Party succeeded in securing 65 seats in the parliament by playing by the rules that the regime set forth and accepting a variety of political actors into their ranks, regardless of ideological affinity. Before long however, party chairman Essam Khalil, who enjoys the support of former police general and current human rights committee chairman Alaa Abed, and who has a good relationship with the security services, carried out an internal coup against party founder and business magnate Naguib Sawiris. The change of leadership shifted the party from pro-business liberals and, per the party’s charter, “defending the January 25 Revolution’s principles,” to another party in support of the organs of the state. It is particularly noteworthy that the overthrow of Sawiris came after he expressed dissatisfaction with the party parliamentary bloc’s views toward government policies.

Whither Egypt’s Political Pluralism?  

Despite these neutralization tactics, some parties led boycotting campaigns in the 2018 presidential campaign. The level of harassment escalated after Sisi was elected for a second term in 2018 with essentially no competition; under the Counter-terrorism Law and a state of emergency that has been re-enforced in the country since April 2017, any political activity easily falls under the very wide umbrella of these laws, thus effectively removing any space for opposition. On the other hand, political forces in support of El Sisi had the liberty of forming a political caucus that speedily gave preliminary approval to the constitutional amendments, which, in addition to expanding the executive’s power, would also allow for a bicameral parliamentary system in which one-third of the members of a second house would be selected by Sisi.

In response, 11 opposition parties have formed the Union to Defend the Constitution. Civil society members—many of whom are involved with smaller parties—have issued a statement against the amendments, and an online petition rejecting the proposed articles has garnered thousands of signatures. Most recently, members of the Civil Democratic Movement that opposed Sisi’s second presidential bid expressed their opposition to the proposed amendments, adding that neither the amendments on presidential terms nor the judiciary ought to be amended; they have called on citizens to vote against the amendments. While some members were invited to attend a March 27 social dialogue on the amendments in parliament, the Ministry of Interior denied the Movement’s request to hold a protest outside the House of Representatives. Other counter-measures have been carried out against those opposing amendments, including sweeping arrests and forms of harassment.

In view of all of these factors, opposition parties are faced with a decisive challenge. As state attempts to marginalize the opposition will not recede soon, the constitutional amendment process constitutes a significant opportunity for political parties to mobilize the Egyptian people and regain connection with the community. What will be the outcome of the political dialogue sessions? What are the alternatives if the government keeps ignoring the opposition’s demands? The popular interest in politics around the constitutional amendments may be effective only if the democratic political parties and groups are able to organize around a shared interest in saving Egypt’s political life that hangs in the balance.