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President al-Sisi’s Expanding Authority: Rule by Extra Judicial Powers

Article by Dr. Lucia Ardovini

December 13, 2018

President  al-Sisi’s Expanding Authority: Rule by Extra Judicial Powers

At the beginning of December 2018, Egypt-based news outlet Mada Masr revealed that sources from the office of Egyptian President al-Sisi’s office had disclosed the existence of plans already underway to amend the Egyptian Constitution. The proposed ‘reforms’ are scheduled to be implemented in the first half of 2019, and reveal a worrying move towards the seizing of extra-judicial and constitutional powers by the Presidency. Among other proposed changes, key amendments that would significantly reduce the authority and size of the Parliament (cutting the number of MPs from 595 to 350) and retrospectively extending the Presidential term of office to 6 years, meaning that President al-Sisi  could be in power until at least 2026, rather than 2022. In addition, the ‘reforms’ would oversee the creation of a ‘High Council for the Protection of the Constitution’, a new body with far reaching powers aimed at ‘protecting the identity of the state’. The creation of this council also comes with an interesting catch: Al-Sisi would be appointed as its head for life, regardless of whether he remains President.

The exposure of these constitutional changes come at the same time as another set of puzzling speculations: rumours have it that on December 23rd a Cairo Court will hear a citizens’ petition asking for the amendment of Article 140 of the Constitution. This article specifically deals with setting a limit to Presidential terms, which the petitioners claim should be extended, as “Art. 140 (…) is ‘unfair to the great Egyptian people´”, for eight years in office give a President little time to deal with the economic and security challenges facing the country.[2] If adopted and implemented, these measures would not only add to the long list of al –Sisi’s extra judicial incursions aimed at expanding his authority, but also reveal the extent to which these practices have become normalised in Egypt.

The proposition of significant amendments to the Constitution aimed at extending the powers of the Presidency does not come as a surprise in itself. In fact, various regimes in modern Egypt have relied on the seizing of extra judicial powers to crack down on dissent and hold onto power despite crumbling legitimacy. This has historically been done through the routine imposition of Emergency Statuses and the consequent normalization of regimes of rule by extraordinary powers, meaning that Egyptian citizens have existed under de facto emergency conditions for the majority of the country’s history as an independent state.[3] The permanence of almost 30 years of Emergency rule under former President Hosni Mubarak was one of the core grievances at the heart of the 2011 popular uprisings, and although briefly lifted during the transitional period, it has since been re-instated as a paradigm of rule. Under al-Sisi, Egypt has existed under an uninterrupted state of emergency since the Alexandria and Tanta’s church bombings in April 2017, with emergency legislations being routinely renewed every three months ever since. Together with the escalation of increasingly restrictive measures targeting journalists, NGOs and media usage, these conditions further stress the normalization of the Presidency having to rely on the seizure of extra judicial powers as a governance technique.

However, while it is convenient to draw parallels with Hosni Mubarak’s regime, the current developments in Egypt require a deeper analytical look. Though there is an undeniable element of historical continuity, what we are witnessing is the trialling of new experimental practices of power-building, as the regime attempts to circumvent the rule of law to institutionalize authoritarianism. The proposed Constitutional reforms are part of a wider trend that sees the current regime slowly enforcing a hardened version of autocracy since the 2013 coup that removed the Muslim Brotherhood from power and witnessed the return of military rule. While there are clear historical precedents, under al-Sisi, these techniques are being taken to unprecedented levels.

The timing of this is also telling – as the 8th anniversary of the January 2011 popular uprisings approaches, Egypt is under increasing scrutiny by several human rights organizations that are prepared to openly condemn the gross abuses coming out of the country. The recent waves of arrests against human rights defenders reveal a further escalation of crackdown measures that go beyond the targeting of opposition forces, and is  slowly eroding what little pockets of activism left.[4] Moreover, the recent ban on the sale of yellow vests – a direct reference to the popular protests currently enveloping France— showcases the depth of the Government’s concern with security as the anniversary of the revolution approaches on January 25th.[5] However, despite Egypt’s rich history when it comes to civil society and opposition movements, there is barely any political space left in the country. From this, the message that these proposed constitutional amendments send to Egyptians, regardless of whether they are implemented or not, is: this is the new normal.

These moves towards a rapid institutionalization of authoritarianism also offer an insight into what the internal preoccupations of the regime really are. As insurgency in the Sinai continues, Egypt is seeking to reposition itself within the broader power alliances across the region. Al-Sisi’s ongoing support of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, despite the backlash that followed the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, demonstrates that Egyptian-Saudi ties are closer than ever.[6] Internationally, while the country’s strategic position historically made it a valuable ally to the US, the result of the recent midterm elections might lead to a re-think of the annual US$1.3 billion military assistance aid.[7] Moreover, while Egypt’s economy is showing some signs of recovery, al-Sisi’s attempts to reduce public debt through austerity measures risk ignoring the structural reforms that would be necessary to confront the growing crisis.[8] In the long term, as discontent grow, protests against austerity are likely to increase.

This is why it is fundamentally important to keep an eye on international and domestic reactions towards the rapid institutionalization of authoritarianism in Egypt. So far these measures have not been publically denounced – arguably because the preservation of the current military regime serves the interest of both international and regional actors. However, as political space continues to steadily disappear, it remains to be seen what will be harder to uproot: the state’s deep unwillingness to relinquish power, or Egypt’s long history of political activism and resistance.

[1] Egypt’s new political order in the making, Mada Masr,  4 December 2018

[2] Egyptian court to hear petition to cancel presidential term limits, Reuters, 8 December 2018

[3] Revolution and Counter-revolution in Egypt’s Emergency State, Oxford Human Rights Club, 9 March 2018

[4] Egypt: At least 19 arrested in alarming escalation of crackdown on human rights workers, Amnesty International, 1 November 2018,

[5] Egypt bans sale of yellow vests in fear of gilets jaunes copycat protests, The Guardian, 11 December 2018

[6] Saudi Prince Woos Mideast Allies Ahead of Tougher Test, The Wall Street Journal, 27 November 2018,

[7] US midterm elections: Bad news for Sisi?, Mada Masr, 15 November 2018

[8] Sisi’s Debt Crisis, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 20 November 2018

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