By Mahmoud Mourad
CAIRO (Reuters) - The Egyptian parliament on Thursday approved in principle draft constitutional amendments that would allow President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to stay in power until 2034 and tighten his control of the judiciary.
The proposed changes have divided the Western-allied Arab country of nearly 100 million people. Sisi supporters say they are necessary to give the president more time to complete mega development projects and economic reforms he has launched.
His critics say they concentrate more powers in the hands of a president accused by rights groups of presiding over the most relentless crackdown on freedoms in Egypt's modern history.
Parliament Speaker Ali Abdelaal said that 485 MPs in the 596-seat assembly voted in favour of the changes, comprising more than the two-thirds majority needed to pass the amendments. Parliamentary sources said 14 voted against and two abstained.
Parliament began debating the changes on Wednesday after a parliamentary committee endorsed a petition to amend the constitution, which was approved in a 2014 referendum.
The proposed amendments include an extension of the presidential term to six years from four in Article 140 of the constitution, and a "transitional" clause that would reset the clock, potentially allowing Sisi, 63, to stay in power until 2034.
"After the expiry of his current term, the President of the Republic may run again in accordance to the amended article 140," the draft clause says.
Sisi would also get new powers on appointing judges and the public prosecutor. They would add a second parliamentary chamber known as the Council of Senators, in which the president would appoint one-third of its members.
The constitution's Article 200 would also be amended to say the military's duty is to protect "the constitution and democracy and the fundamental makeup of the country and its civil nature." Some critics fear this will increase the armed forces' influence over politics in Egypt.
Sisi is a former general who came to power after the military overthrew Islamist President Mohammed Mursi in 2013 following mass protests against his rule. Sisi was elected president the following year.
Abdelaal said the proposed amendments had "no relation to the presidency and had come at the initiative of parliament".
Ahmed al-Tantawi, a member of an opposition bloc comprising 16 MPs, said the moves violate the spirit of the constitution.
"All the articles are a revision, a setback, a return to a system of rule that is worse than what existed before January 25," Tantawi said, referring to the 2011 uprising that forced long-serving autocrat Hosni Mubarak to step down.
The proposed changes will now be reviewed by a parliamentary committee and then return to parliament for a second vote before they are presented for a national referendum, expected before the middle of this year.
(Reporting by Mahmoud Mourad; Writing by Sami Aboudi; Editing by Mark Heinrich)