CAIRO (Reuters) - Egypt's parliament is debating proposed constitutional changes that could allow President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to stay in power until 2034 and tighten his control over the judiciary.
The proposals, submitted by Sisi supporters in parliament, have divided the country of nearly 100 million people, the most populous in the Arab world.
Supporters say the changes will allow the president to finalise economic reforms and major development projects. Opponents argue they will entrench authoritarian rule and further empower Egypt's military.
WHAT ARE THE KEY CHANGES BEING CONSIDERED?
One central proposal would amend article 140 of the constitution to extend the presidential term to six years from four. It retains a two-term limit but includes a clause that would allow Sisi, whose second term expires in 2022, to seek two new six-year terms.
The president would have more control over the appointment of judges and the public prosecutor.
Lawmakers have also proposed introducing the post of vice president, allowing the head of state to appoint one or more deputies.
A second parliamentary chamber known as the Council of Senators would be added. The president would appoint one-third of its members.
Article 200 of the constitution would be amended to give the military a duty to protect "the constitution and democracy and the fundamental makeup of the country and its civil nature."
WHO IS BEHIND THE CHANGES?
The amendments were initiated by the pro-government parliamentary bloc Support Egypt. Under the current constitution, which was approved by referendum in 2014, amendments may be introduced to parliament at the request of a fifth of the assembly's 596 members, or by the president.
Parliament speaker Ali Abdelaal has sought to distance Sisi from the plan, saying it was purely a parliamentary initiative and that Sisi may choose not to run in 2022.
But the proposed changes are widely seen as driven by Sisi, his close entourage, and security and intelligence agencies who hold real power in Egypt. They follow months of speculation that the presidency was preparing to push constitutional changes through a pliant parliament.
WHAT DO SUPPORTERS OF THE CONSTITUTIONAL CHANGES SAY?
Supporters argue that Sisi came to power with a huge mandate after mass protests against Islamist President Mohamed Mursi's one year in office.
They say Sisi helped stabilise the country after three years of turmoil following the 2011 uprising, and has presided over economic reforms that put the country on the mend.
With macro economic indicators improving, Sisi supporters say he deserves more time to build on the reforms.
WHO OPPOSES THE CHANGES AND WHY?
A handful of leftist and liberal members of parliament in the so-called 25-30 opposition bloc oppose the changes. But thousands of ordinary Egyptians, including lawyers, judges, actors, engineers, doctors and journalists have also signed a petition against them circulating on social media. As of Feb. 18, organisers said more than 21,500 had signed.
Critics say that while article 226 of the constitution stipulates that article 140 can be amended, it clearly states that such changes can only be made to reinforce civic rights rather than weakening them, as critics contend these proposals would.
"This assembly has no right to amend articles related to the presidential election or rights, freedoms and equality except to provide more guarantees," Ahmed al-Tantawi, a member of the 25-30 bloc, said.
Opponents argue that a central promise of the Jan. 25, 2011 uprising, when mass protests prompted former President Hosni Mubarak to step down, is at risk: the principle of the peaceful handover of power.
Ahmed Galal, a former finance minister, said the amendments represented a return to the system that kept Mubarak in power for three decades.
"Isn't the principle of the transfer of power a precious goal in itself?" Galal wrote in a column published in Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper.
Many Egyptians also worry that the amendments give the president powers to appoint judges and the public prosecutor, thrust the armed forces into political life by formally assigning them a role in protecting democracy, and establish further curbs on freedom of expression.
Opponents say Sisi, first elected president in 2014 and reelected last year in a vote in which the only other candidate was an ardent Sisi supporter, has overseen the worst period of political repression in Egypt's modern history and that his economic reforms are not benefiting average Egyptians.
HOW DO WESTERN POWERS VIEW THE CHANGES?
The United States and its Western allies have not publicly commented on the changes, which they see as an internal Egyptian matter. But they maintain that the stability of Egypt is crucial for the security and stability of the Middle East.
During a regional tour last month, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo showered Sisi with praise as a key ally in the fight against terrorism.
French President Emmanuel Macron said in Cairo last month that "things haven't gone in the right direction since 2017," pointing out that bloggers, journalists were in prison.
"Because of that, Egypt's image can find itself suffering," he said.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
After two days of heated discussions on Feb. 14, parliament passed the amendments in principle by an overwhelming majority of 485 votes against 14. Nearly 100 MPs were absent.
The head of parliament's legislative and constitution committee, Bahaa Abu Shaqqa, said proposals and suggestions from outside parliament would be collected for one month, with two weeks of parliamentary discussions to follow, according to Al-Masry Al-Youm.
Then parliament will hold a second, final vote.
If approved, the proposals will be put to a referendum expected by the middle of this year, possibly before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan that starts in May.
(Writing by Sami Aboudi; Editing by Aidan Lewis and Robin Pomeroy)