Egyptian President el-Sissi tempted to expand term after decisive victory at the election booths

EGYElectionCAIRO – President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi has said repeatedly that he respects term limits outlined in Egypt’s 2014 constitution.

Drafted in the wake of the 2013 Tahrir Square uprising and the end of the 30-year rule of former President Hosni Mubarak, the document limits Egyptian presidents to two four-year stints in office.

But in an era when Russia’s Vladimir Putin, China’s Xi Jinping and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have extended their tenures as heads of state into the indefinite future, many believe El-Sisi might try for a third term.

"Let me tell you something, there's no bigger country than China, and they just changed the constitution to give the president an open term, up to life," television host Imad Eddin Adib said recently as he called El-Sisi to do the same.

Such calls among el-Sisi supporters for the third term began weeks before El-Sisi’s re-election victory in March, when the incumbent racked up 97 percent of the vote in a contest that human rights monitors and others said was an authoritarian referendum rather than an honest ballot.

El-Sisi’s haul reflected how opposition activists called for a boycott of the vote after authorities imprisoned three presidential candidates from the military and four potential civilian candidates opted not to run. Turnout was around 42 percent, or 6 percentage points less than when he first won office in 2014.

The president ran against headwinds.

He has had to devalue the Egyptian pound and reduce of food and fuel subsidies that were required under an International Monetary Fund bailout. At the same time, Islamic State terrorists have been fighting the Egyptian army in the northern Sinai for five years while targeting Coptic Christians in the Nile Valley.

Many Egyptians feel like they need a strong leader to deal with those threats.

“Let’s be honest with ourselves. We are pharaoh's people, and we're looking for the one man, the only man, who achieves great things and can face the security challenges,” said Mahmoud Ibrahim, managing director of Egypt Campaigns, a Cairo political consulting firm that formerly worked for ex-President Mubarak.

El-Sisi has launched massive projects to jumpstart economic development and showcase his leadership, including a new capital city around 30 miles east of Cairo, massive desert reclamation projects and urban redevelopment in Cairo’s sprawling slums.

“The opposition people are busy on Twitter, but you cannot find another man to build this country,” Ibrahim said.

El-Sisi, a former army field marshal and head of military intelligence, has been reluctant to appear as a party politician. He announced his candidacy in 2014 within weeks of the deadline for filing and did not personally appear at any of the pre-election rallies organized by his campaign.

Now, however, as he has cracked down on civil rights and eliminated rivals, nobody else appears ready to challenge him.

“Speculation that the president will remain for more than his constitutional term is often raised by political parties because there is no real alternative who enjoys the same popular consensus, or matches the broad support Mr. El-Sisi obtained in the last two elections,” said Mustafa Kamal, an analyst at the government affiliated Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

Amending the constitution to permit a third term requires legislation by parliament and approval in a popular referendum.

But Kamal said parliament needed to clarify laws now governing how political parties before El-Sisi considers making those changes. Currently, security officials have oversight of parties and complex regulations make them hard to organize. El-Sisi loyalists want to reform the system so that it includes only two major parties.

Opposition groups say the both current system and the proposed changes are unconstitutional and exemplify el-Sisi’s authoritarian streak.

But proponents insist the reforms would allow room for loyal opposition groups – broadly defined in Egypt as supporters of the June 30 displacement of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi by street protesters and the military – to contest local elections slated for next year.

While Western governments are concerned about Egypt’s political trajectory – British Prime Minister Theresa May recently went as far as to remind El-Sisi of term limits in her congratulations call after he won in March – multinational companies are showing signs of supporting his economic policies.

“He is weaning this country from the socialist dogma that we had since the Sixties,” said Tarek Tawfik, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt. “American multinationals in Egypt already are reinvesting and expanding here.”

Virginia-based candy maker Mars is moving its manufacturing facilities from Dubai in the United Arab Emirates to Egypt, for example, said Tawfik.

“They realized that as a cost base and as a cost center it’s far more economical to be here,” said Tawfik. “We have free trade agreements with most African countries, all the Arab states, and the European Union. Companies are looking at Egypt as a regional hub, a logistical and transport center with cheap and trainable labor with access to energy for years to come.

An alternative version of this story can be found in The Washington Times.
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