It’s been eight years since we took to the streets in the protests that led to the ouster of our longest-ruling president, Hosni Mubarak, a.k.a. “the pharaoh,” after his 30-year rule. Since then, we have gone from being first-time voters to seasoned ones, heading to the polls nine times to cast ballots for Parliaments, presidents or the Constitution. Our current president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, was re-elected in April to serve another four-year term — his second and, under the 2014 Constitution, his last. Or so we thought.
Earlier this month, Egypt’s Parliament speed-presented, -debated and -approved a package of amendments to the Constitution. The powers of the president would be both expanded — with greater oversight over the main pillars of the state, including the authority to appoint the heads of judicial bodies — and extended. The two-term limit would remain, but each term would last six years. Under a special exemption, Mr. el-Sisi would be allowed to run again under the new provisions. He could rule until 2034.
The proposed changes are reminiscent of the amendments Turkey made to its Constitution in 2017, which some of Egypt’s most prominent talk-show hosts took to task at the time. A video going around Egyptian social media these days cleverly mocks the current situation here with a compilation of clips about President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey from back then. “He set himself up today as an official dictator.” “He tailor-made a constitution.” “Everything is in his hands.” “He decided none of the past years count.”
A Facebook page named “The Egyptian Position” more assertively addresses the situation at home, with videos of ordinary citizens and the odd recognizable face (such as the political scientist Rabab El Mahdi) warning that tampering with the Constitution could mean the making of another pharaoh. Clips of members of Parliament standing up to a full house and pillorying the amendments have gone viral. On Feb. 14, 16 representatives (some counts say 17) voted against the proposed revisions, compared with 485 in favor. One of them, Ahmed al-Tantawi, has said the changes were “a regression to a worse system” than the one before the 2011 revolution. Even under Mr. Mubarak, the military was not so deeply enshrined in the daily affairs of government. Nor was the opposition so severely repressed.
The amendments still need to be reviewed, debated and approved by a special committee, then returned to Parliament and put to a public referendum. The entire process could be completed by as early as mid-April. The question is not only what will happen at the polls, but also, and perhaps more significant, what might happen between now and then.
Many commentators have shrugged off the referendum as a foregone conclusion, an orchestrated event in which the “yes” vote will be rigged to prevail. The question that seems to arise most often among the privileged — doctors, professors, former M.P.s I’ve talked to in Cairo — is whether Egyptians understand the implications of the changes they will be asked to vote on, or if like the British with Brexit, they don’t fully measure the repercussions. In fact, that question is irrelevant. What Egyptians understand is that Mr. Sisi could rule for another 15 years. And what they know is that already they can barely sustain themselves.
When you talk to people on the streets of Cairo, on the city’s outskirts or in its poor informal settlements, and when you travel to Alexandria, Minya or further south, it becomes clear that it’s the hard facts of daily life that dictate the public’s thinking around revising the Constitution. The people know that since this president’s election, prices are up and the Egyptian pound is down. A subway ticket, which cost 1 pound in 2014, is now 7 pounds; a cylinder of cooking gas, once 8 pounds, is 50 pounds. They know that the austerity measures implemented by the government in exchange for a sizable, overdue loan from the International Monetary Fund have harmed them. They know that they want change.
Opponents of the government, or of these constitutional amendments, have criticized the proposed changes, but so far no formal, legal contestation and no visibly forceful “no” campaign are underway. Yet the current situation presents an opportunity anew, especially for the opposition, to redirect the country’s political trajectory.
The turning point of the 2011 revolution came on Feb. 1 that year, a few days after riot police had fled their positions and then protesters had called for a million-man march. That’s when I heard friends and family who until that point had been fearful of marching announce that they, too, wanted to go in the streets. They wanted to be part of that million. That moment is what led, ultimately, to Mr. Mubarak’s ouster. Likewise, the upcoming referendum is a moment to mobilize around broad dissatisfaction.
It is a chance for the left, liberals and those with political or economic clout to campaign for a “no” vote and, drawing on the revolution’s spirit of community organizing, to protect the people from thuggery or intimidation at polling stations. It is a chance to claim back some of the political agency we have lost.
It is also a chance for Mr. el-Sisi. The parliamentarian Talaat Khalil recently asked, as he objected to the amendments: “Did anyone consult either with their own constituents or even the president himself? Do we know he wants to stay on?” His suggestion was that the amendments were drafted, self-servingly, by a select circle of M.P.s allied with the president. However the proposed revisions came about, Mr. el-Sisi can reject them now, or even once their wording is finalized, on grounds that they violate his contract with the people of Egypt.
In 2017, in a much-quoted interview with CNBC, he promised to abide by the principles laid out in the Constitution, notably term limits. Whether to uphold those principles is a decision that could be put to the people in the coming months. But it could be seized upon much sooner, by the president himself, and that would be even more significant for the country at large.
Yasmine El Rashidi is the author of The Battle for Egypt: Dispatches from the Revolution and Chronicle of a Last Summer: A Novel of Egypt, and a contributing opinion writer.