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Egypt's Parliament Moves to Extend Presidential Term Limits

Egypt's Parliament meets to deliberate over constitutional amendments that could allow President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi to stay in office till 2034, in Cairo Egypt, Wednesday, Feb 13, 2019.

The Egyptian parliament voted overwhelmingly Thursday to approve draft amendments to the country's 2013 constitution, putting an end to presidential term limits and potentially allowing incumbent President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi to remain in office until 2034. The changes will need to be ratified in a popular referendum in the next several months.

Egyptian state TV reported that parliament voted heavily to approve constitutional amendments that would end term limits and potentially allow incumbent President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi to be re-elected several more times until 2034.

Opinion on the street was mixed, with many young people expressing reservations about the changes, while older Egyptians appeared more accepting of open-ended presidential terms, as has been the case since the country's 1952 revolution, which overthrew the monarchy.

President Gamal Abdel Nasser, one of the instigators of the 1952 revolution, remained in office from 1954 until he died in 1970, while his successor, Anwar Sadat, was president from 1970 until he was killed by Islamic extremists in 1981. Sadat's vice president, Hosni Mubarak, succeeded him and ruled for nearly 30 years until he was ousted in a 2011 revolution.

Political sociologist Said Sadek tells VOA that many Egyptians are worried about instability in the region and are looking to the president for stability and security.

"Egypt is surrounded by failed states: Libya, Sudan and Hamas in Gaza. All the neighboring countries are in trouble. There is also tension in the Gulf, so [many] people are looking for a strong, powerful leader," he said. "They look at Sissi as someone who has delivered security and they want him to continue the stabilization."

Sadek argues that if President Sissi were to suddenly disappear from the political scene, "Egyptians would probably choose another person from the military-political class, rather than a civilian, who might not be able to cope with the regional instability."

Hilal Khashan, who teaches political science at the American University of Beirut, points out that Arab rulers, across the region, have a tradition of remaining in power for long periods of time.

"In Egypt and the rest of the region, elections are about endorsement. You don't really elect, you simply ratify the existing order," said Khashan. "In the Arab tradition, people have no reason to question authority. The ruler expects obedience ... and of course, we have a fascination for authority and the application of power."

Sadek points out that "democracy across the world has been in regression for the past 15 years," according to a report by U.S.-based Freedom House.

Hilal Khashan, however, says the Arab world has never really undergone the fundamental changes seen in Europe, as democracy evolved.

"What made democracy happen in Europe is first the "Age of Reason," the "Renaissance," and then the industrial revolution, which broke the old system and put an end to the segmentation of society, creating a new political community based on interests," said Khashan. "The key to the establishment of a democratic order is to have a political community that believes in working together ... something that has never happened in this region."

Arab media reported Egypt's proposed constitutional changes without major criticism, while many Western news outlets appeared to express outrage at the proposed changes.

Both Sadek and Khashan point out that Arab rulers across the region have traditionally governed for long periods of time, among them the Sultan of Oman (from 1970 to the present), former Syrian President Hafez al Assad (from 1970 to his death in 2000), former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi (from 1969 until he was ousted in 2011), former Yemeni President Ali Abdallah Saleh (from 1978 to 2011) and Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (from 1989 to present).