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A man motions to a woman arriving to vote in a referendum on constitutional amendments, at a school in the Egyptian capital Cairo's northern neighbourhood of Shubra, on the first day of a three-day poll, on April 20, 2019. Image Credit: AFP

Cairo: Egypt is holding a three-day referendum, which started on Saturday, on constitutional amendments that could allow President Abdul Fattah Al Sissi to stay in office until 2030.

Parliament this week overwhelmingly approved the proposals, which would also bolster the role of the military and expand the president’s power over judicial appointments.

It remains unclear when the results of the referendum will be announced.

What are the key changes?

An amendment to Article 140 of the constitution extends the presidential term to six years from four.

An outright bar on any president serving more than two terms will change to a bar on serving more than two consecutive terms.

An additional clause extends Al Sissi’s current term to six years from four currently since his election victory in 2018, and allows him to run for a third term in 2024.

The amendments provide for the creation of a second parliamentary chamber known as the Council of Senators.

It would have 180 members, two-thirds elected by the public and the rest appointed by the president.

Article 200 of the constitution on the role of the military is expanded, giving the military a duty to protect “the constitution and democracy and the fundamental make-up of the country and its civil nature, the gains of the people and the rights and freedoms of individuals”.

The amendments also create the post of vice president, allowing the president to appoint one or more deputies.

They task the president with choosing head judges and the public prosecutor from a pool of senior candidates pre-selected by the judiciary.

They further create a quota setting women’s representation in parliament at a minimum of 25 per cent.

Who is behind the ammendments?

The amendments were initiated by the pro-government parliamentary bloc known as Support Egypt, and according to the parliament’s legislative committee report, 155 members submitted the initial proposal.

On Tuesday, 531 out of 596 members of Egypt’s overwhelmingly pro-Al Sissi parliament voted in favour of the changes.

Parliament speaker Ali Abdul Aal has said that the amendments were a parliamentary initiative and that Al Sissi may not even choose to run again.

“This suggestion came from the representatives of the people in gratitude for the historic role played by the president,” the legislative committee report said.

Proponents of the changes have argued that Al Sissi, a former army chief, came to power with a huge mandate after mass protests in 2013 against Islamist President Mohammad Mursi’s one year in office. With macro economic indicators improving, they say Al Sissi deserves more time to build on reforms.

The legislative committee report said religious, academic, political and civil society representatives expressed strong overall support for the changes during a consultation period ahead of the parliament’s final vote.

What do opponents say?

The legislative committee acknowledged some opposition to the amendments from members of the judiciary and two non-governmental organisations.

Just 22 members of parliament voted against the amendments.

They and other opposition figures say a central promise of the 2011 uprising that toppled then-President Hosni Mubarak is at risk: the principle of the peaceful transfer of power.

They say the amendments were driven by Al Sissi and his close entourage, and by the powerful security and intelligence agencies.

They also fear the changes thrust the armed forces into political life by formally assigning them a role in protecting democracy.