CAIRO: In light of Egypt’s history of executively-focused constitutional amendments, President Mubarak’s current efforts at reform are another step in a long process of making a constitutional democracy into an autocracy.
Though some amendments include seemingly democratic provisions, such as the 1980 establishment of the Supreme Press Council, the overall effect of Egyptian amendments has been to consolidate Presidential power. In Egypt’s history, only amendments proposed by the President have succeeded, while other attempts to change the constitution are quashed.
The current Constitution was ratified in 1971 just after Anwar Sadat’s ascension to the presidency. On first glance, this constitution provides many democratic freedoms, guaranteeing people the right to vote and contest their leaders. It also appears to divide power between the executive, judicial and legislative branches.
However, in a 2003 Middle East Report article, legal scholar Mona El-Ghobashy states that power in the 1971 constitution was “overwhelmingly weighted towards the chief executive.
Many of the rights granted to the President, though often similar to the executive powers in other constitutional democracies, have been used in unusual ways by Egyptian leaders. These include the rights to dismiss the Prime Minister and Parliament members, and declare emergency law.
A major amendment of the constitution, and consolidation of Presidential power took place in 1980, when President Sadat changed the law to say that the President can serve an unlimited number of terms. The original 1971 constitution allowed the President only two, six-year terms.
The 1980 amendments, according to a United Nations Development Program report on the Egyptian Constitution, also gave the President the right to appoint the Shura Council, and, as mentioned before, created the Supreme Press Council to protect the media’s rights.
Yet the 1971 constitution has arguably been irrelevant since 1981 when President Mubarak’s use of emergency law effectively “suspended the Constitution, according to El-Ghobashy’s article. The emergency law gives the executive overwhelming powers, and suspends many of the rights, such as free speech and required arrest warrants, that would allow people to participate in Egyptian politics.
Many opposition groups have long pushed for Constitutional amendments that would allow for a more democratic division of governmental power.
In 1991 the Muslim Brothers and the Communists signed a joint statement asking for a Constitutional review by legal scholars and members of all political parties. They advocated a return to Egypt’s 1954 constitution, which gave the legislature considerable power. Their requests were, however, ignored.
In 1994, President Mubarak hosted a “National Dialogue to discuss political power. Though Constitutional reform was on the agenda, many opposition members boycotted the meeting because 237 out of the 274 politicians invited to the dialogue were from the National Democratic Party.
The most recent move to reform the constitution was last year, when President Mubarak amended the election law in Article 76 to supposedly provide for popular, multiparty presidential elections, but ended up restricting opposition political parties and having himself elected to yet another six-year term.
Egyptian rulers have long used the constitution to empower themselves while weakening the people. Mubarak’s proposed amendments are part of this long trend of increasing executive power.