On April 16, the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly in favour of proposed constitutional amendments that would extend presidential terms, reintroduce the upper house of parliament, as well as increase the representation of women and minority groups in parliament. The amendments passed with 531 of 554 members of parliament (MPs) voting in favour. Twenty-two MPs voted against the amendments, while one abstained.
A public referendum will be held on the proposed amendments, with polls open from April 20 to April 22 across Egypt. According to the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Egyptians abroad can vote in 124 countries that will in total host 140 poll centres from 9:00 AM to 9:00 PM between April 19 and April 21. Egyptian expats can only vote in person at the embassy or consulates of their country of residence, limiting the voting options for those who live far.
The implementation of the constitutional amendments in the event the referendum is approved would signal the following changes among others:
- President Sisi’s current term will expire in 2024 instead of 2022, under the transitional articles, when he can also run for a third time of six years.
- The presidential term will increase from four to six years.
- The president will appoint pre-nominated judges, the head of the constitutional court and the prosecutorgeneral.
- The State Council will not be obliged to revise legislation before it becomes law.
- The military becomes the protector of the country’s constitution and democracy.
- The military must approve the appointed minister of defence.
- At least 25 percent of the seats in parliament will be held by women.
- The president can appoint one or more vice presidents as the post will be restored.
- The Shura Council (Senate) which was abolished in 2014 is being restored.
- It becomes easier for civilians to be tried in military courts where their presumed indirect involvement hasresulted in an attack against the armed forces.
‘VOID’ CAMPAIGN AND CONDUCT OF VOTE
According to election officials, the referendum procedures during voting will be fair and transparent. A judge will be reportedly present at every ballot box, while the media and civil society organisations will be able to monitor the process.
However, reports in the weeks ahead of the referendum show a concerning environment under which the public vote will be cast. The government has been widely accused of attempting to censor online content related to thoseopposing the referendum and the amendments under the campaign name باطل, that translates as Void. The online campaign calls on people to participate in the referendum and reject the constitutional amendments that aim to “prolong President Sisi’s rule, the army’s control over political life and the subordination of the judiciary under the executive branch’s control.”
Surrounding the online campaign, NetBlocks, a civil society organisation that monitors the level of ‘digital rights, cyber-security and internet governance,’ said on April 10 that the government had blocked access to the petition website set up to collect signatures, just hours after the online campaign was launched. Despite the presumed blocking of the petition website www.voiceonline.net, it has collected 493,336 signatures as of April 19, 14:40 AM (UTC +3).
Relatedly, NetBlocks said that about 34,000 internet domains have been blocked or became unreachable via the main internet providers in Egypt, including Telecom Egypt, Raya, Vodafone and Orange. The blocking of thousands of websites and subdomains included Baha’i, Jewish and Islamic faith group websites, as well as non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and celebrity pages. Bitly, a website that shortens website links and is widely used by news agencies and blogging websites was also blocked by several internet providers for about 12 hours on April 18.
Despite the online blockade, social media users have widely used the hashtags #Void and باطل#, promoting their opposition to the amendments. Notably, an online debate has sparked ahead of the vote with Egyptians debating whether it’s more impactful to boycott the referendum or just vote ‘no’. Observers who support a boycott suggest that participating in the referendum grants the process legitimacy, despite the amendments being deemed unconstitutional. Observers who will opt to vote ‘no’ support participation in the referendum, suggesting that voting will lessen the possibility of altered or false ballots. Relatedly, those who will vote ‘no’ are encouraged to wear black to show the volume of people rejecting the amendments, and thus, make it more difficult to tamper with the results.
Amnesty International, an international human rights organisation, accused the Egyptian authorities of cracking down on critics who stand against the constitutional reforms, warning that the changes in the constitution will increase impunity of human rights violations, silence peaceful dissent and compromise what remains of the judiciary’s independence.
SAFETY DURING THE VOTE
Escalations around polling stations cannot be ruled out. At the time of writing, the Egyptian populous is divided on the issue. Demonstrators who took to the streets in 2011 fear that this is the final nail in the coffin that will bury the uprising that hoped to democratise the country. Human rights abuses, suppression of political dissent amid an ongoing wave of politically-motivated arrests – as well as the centralisation of power under the president with a direct subordination of the judiciary – are evidence that Egypt is losing its infant democratic features.
People are advised to maintain heightened situational awareness around polling stations and avoid crowded areas. Tensions between civilians and security are likely to occur.
As of yet, no organised gatherings have been announced surrounding the vote.
- Avoid polling stations
- Avoid political gatherings
- Avoid engaging in discussions with locals about the referendum
- Refrain from visiting religious sites
- Maintain heightened situational awareness
- Anticipate heavy security presence in and around polling stations