snapshots

Egypt: Constitutional Changes Enshrine the Military's Hold on Power

3 MINS READApr 16, 2019 | 19:25 GMT
The Big Picture

The political role of the military is currently playing out in several North African countries. In both Sudan and Algeria, the military apparatus is asserting its power in a bid to influence chaotic leadership transitions. In Egypt, where the military already has enormous sway over the country's politics, the army is enshrining its authority even further.

What Happened

On April 16, the Egyptian parliament approved a raft of amendments to the country's constitution that, among other things, would extend presidential terms to six years, meaning that President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's current term would end in 2024. He could then run for reelection and hold office until 2030. Other amendments would reestablish the Shura Council, a consultative body that functions as an upper parliamentary house; create the office of vice president; and enact quotas for the representation of women and minorities in the lower house.

But of all the amendments, which must win approval in a popular referendum before they can enter the constitution, perhaps the most important ones address the political mandate handed to the already powerful Egyptian armed forces. Those measures would give the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) the final say on the appointment of the defense minister in Egypt's civil government. And most notably, the language of the mandate assigned to the country's army has undergone a subtle, but significant, adjustment, with the service branch now defined as "an institution of the people tasked with safeguarding the land, the constitution, democratic and personal rights, the state, civilian rule, and the gains of the people."

Based on the wording of the amendment outlining the army's powers, the service can realistically argue that any action it takes can be justified as a move to "safeguard" Egypt.

Why It Matters

The importance of the amendments does not lie in how likely the parliament will pass them or how likely the Egyptian public will approve them. Rather, it lies in how they will deepen the ability of a single president to direct Egypt's policies, and more than that, how the military's political power over the civilian government is being enshrined into law. Based on the wording of the amendment outlining the army's powers, the service can realistically argue that any action it takes can be justified as a move to "safeguard" Egypt, even if the civilian government does not approve. This adjustment to Article 200 of the constitution appears to remove some of the civilian state's oversight of army actions.

Background

For most of its history, the Egyptian parliament has functioned as a rubber stamp for the Egyptian president's policies, and this role has only deepened since the 2013 coup that overthrew the government of then-President Mohammed Morsi. Moreover, the Egyptian presidency has always been a strong institution, with the executive branch exercising much of the country's centralized power.

Egypt's current civilian government operates in close coordination with the army, which is led by the SCAF. After the aftermath of the Arab Spring ushered in a unique period of free and fair elections that gave opposition parties parliamentary power and catapulted Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood leader, into the presidency, the SCAF reasserted control in 2013, ousting Morsi and overseeing the drafting of a new constitution and new presidential elections in 2014.

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