The Egyptian Constitutional Amendments: Sabotage or Rehabilitation?

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After a whirlwind of quick developments, the issue of the Egyptian constitutional amendments seems to have come to an end before it even started. Some people were very passionate about the subject; others couldn’t care less, while the majority didn’t even know what all the commotion was about. Political apathy aside, constitutional amendments are a big deal and should not be dismissed as easily as they have been.

34 Articles

For a constitution which could be classified as rigid (that is at least some part of it cannot be modified in the ordinary legislative way), the Egyptian constitution seems to have been amended quite hastily. The full text of the amendments appeared in late January 2007, after only having been mentioned by President Mubarak in the September 2006 National Democratic Party (NDP) conference. After deliberation, the parliament approved all 34 amendments with a single vote on March 19, 2007 and the articles then moved to the polls for a referendum exactly one week later on March 26, contrary to what was planned, which was some time in April.

Opposition to the amendments was noticeable, especially regarding a number of controversial articles that didn’t quite fit into the image the government was trying to diffuse which was that of a more empowered political arena, and more balanced government branches.


What Changed?

Social and Economic Disposition

12 out of the 34 amended constitutional articles were changed to remove any socialist principles or terms from the constitution in order for it to reflect the current capitalist, democratic system that the government is advocating. Terms like ‘the people shall control all means of production’ for example are clearly outdated and have been replaced by a more realistic reflection of the current economic and political situations in Egypt. Therefore the new articles reflect a more diverse economy where public ownership is minimal and market forces are left to interact freely.

Personal Freedoms

The Egyptian constitution provides for the safeguarding personal rights and freedoms (such as individual freedom, the right to privacy, the inviolability of home and communications, the right and freedom of movement, emigration, creed and opinion, to elect and be elected, the press, scientific research, public meetings, associations, trade unions, and political asylum) quite effectively in articles 41 through 56.

However, Article 179 seems to fly in the face of any of these articles. The old article stipulated that the Socialist Public Prosecutor can order civilians to be tried in military courts. Now, the amended article gives this right to the President and permits the overruling of protections against arbitrary arrest, search without warrant, and violation of privacy in prosecuting offenses related to terrorism – to be regulated later on through the passing of an anti-terrorism law.

When this is then contrasted to the President’s promises to eradicate the state of emergency that has been ongoing in Egypt since 1981, critics can’t help but assume that amended article 179 is an obvious replacement and immortalization of the state of emergency and an ongoing protection of security practices from constitutional oversight.

Political Freedoms

Article 5 stipulates that Egypt supports a multi-party system that works within the fundamental principles of the Egyptian society. And although the political party law in Egypt already forbids the formation of parties on the basis of religion, amended article 5 goes further to ban any political activity based on religion and not only that but also within any religious frame of reference.

This amendment is claimed to attempt to eliminate any dividing notions and pave for a more solid, integrated society that doesn’t allow for any form of discrimination. Critics, however, agree that this is a clear move to stop the Muslim Brotherhood from even thinking of forming an official political party, especially in light of the considerable success achieved by the Brotherhood in the 2005 parliamentary elections.

The Presidency

Article 76 was amended in 2005 to allow for a person that met specific –yet strict- criteria to run for Presidency. The new amendment to Article 76 allows any registered party that holds at least one seat in either the People’s Assembly or the Shura Council to nominate a candidate (who must have been a member of its senior leadership for at least a year) in any presidential election that takes place in the next decade. Ten years from now, a party must hold three percent of seats in each chamber, or the equivalent number of seats in one chamber in order to be able to nominate a presidential candidate. It is also possible for an independent to get on the ballot, but the candidate would need a large number of endorsements from elected officials at various branches of government.

This of course is in essence quite a leap for the Egyptian political sphere, however, again it blocks the Muslim Brotherhood from attempting to reach presidential elections – and in light of the weak party structure currently present in Egypt, the NDP would still be the most eligible party for putting forth a presidential candidate.

The Parliament

Amended articles 115 and 127 give more power to the Egyptian parliament. The parliament can now withdraw confidence from the Prime Minister without holding a public referendum over the decision. Furthermore, the parliament must now be presented with the state budget three months before the end of the fiscal year to give it time for debate and also has the right to vote on each individual article.

Article 136, however, again disappointed critics, as it gives the President a new right; to be able to dissolve the parliament –albeit if necessary- without holding a public referendum, which makes parliament extremely vulnerable and possibly affected by volatile political situations.

Judicial Supervision of Elections

The original Article 88 of the Egyptian constitution stipulates that “balloting take place under the supervision of a judicial body.” in parliamentary elections and referenda. However it was always claimed that there weren’t enough judges to monitor every polling station and therefore supervision was limited to the places where the ballots were counted. The election law which reflected these claims was declared unconstitutional in 2000 and new legislation was drafted to allow judges to be present at all polling stations by spreading the polling over several days. Even after the revised legislation was put into practice, things still went wrong and the government received a lot of criticism, as quasi-judicial officials were included in the judicial supervisory bodies and judges were intentionally harassed and impeded at polling stations.

The revision of article 88 comes to end all debate about judicial supervision by stipulating that electoral supervision is to be carried out by an independent electoral commission (which is the common international practice) but also goes further to state that balloting will take place in a single day.

This amendment can be seen as a move to keep in line with international practices, or as most critics see it, as a way of allowing for more room for misconduct at polling stations.

It is clear that the recent constitutional amendments have brought about many changes. However, the coming years will show the real effect of these amendments and whether they were actually a step forward towards rehabilitating the constitution or if they were a mere disappointment.

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