Critics Attack Egypt Vote

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President Hosni Mubarak heralded the 34 constitutional amendments approved by Egyptian voters on Monday as a reform milestone, while domestic opponents and foreign critics castigated them for tightening his authoritarian rule. On one point there seems little disagreement, however: as long as the five-term, 78-year-old Egyptian leader remains in office, political change will be controlled, gradual and on the regime's terms.

Mubarak had the parliament pass the amendments on March 19 and marched them to the voting booths for ratification just seven days later, giving Egypt's Kifaya (Enough) opposition movement little time to mobilize a "no" vote. A heavy police presence and the arrests of 50 activists disrupted Kifaya's plans to stage nationwide protests. But Kifaya's vote boycott dented the legitimacy of the foregone outcome (officially 79.5% approval). While elections officials claimed a 27% voter turnout, Kifaya leader George Ishak put the number at no more than 3%; the truth is probably somewhere in between, hardly evidence of an enthusiastic electorate. Already Amnesty International had denounced the amendments as "the greatest erosion of rights in 26 years" and Secretary of State Condeleezza Rice called them "a really disappointing outcome."

Kifaya activists complain that the constitutional changes give the regime sweeping powers to consolidate its hold on power and, some critics contended, to ease the way for Mubarak's son Gamal to succeed to the presidency in 2011. Human rights groups were particularly outraged by the amendment to Article 179 giving the president broad police powers in the name of fighting terrorism. Critics said the change amounted to enshrining Egypt's State of Emergency, decreed when Mubarak took office in 1981 after the assassination of former President Anwar Sadat by Islamic extremists, into the constitution.

Critics also seized on the change to Article 5 that effectively bars the legalization of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest and best organized opposition group and holder of 88 seats as independents in the current parliament. The contentious amending of Article 88 eliminates judicial supervision of elections and gives oversight authority to a new supreme elections council, thus ending what many Egyptians see as the only credible safeguard for free and fair voting.

Gamal Mubarak, a senior official of the ruling National Democratic Party, who has repeatedly denied seeking the presidency, insisted that while the anti-terrorism amendment is necessary to fight the global threat, Egypt's police measures would be put under judicial supervision. He also argued that banning religious parties was an accepted Egyptian tradition and that the amendment to Article 88 "provides much more detail, much more guarantees" in running and supervising elections. "We are aware of the criticism and the skeptics out there," Gamal Mubarak told journalists on the eve of the referendum. "Democracy is an evolving process. We might be moving slower than people expect. We might be moving slower than actually we expect. But what is important for us is we are moving in the right direction. We still have a way to go."

His father's unchallenged power was certainly evident across Egypt on referendum day. After casting a "yes" vote at the Fouad Galal school on the east bank of the Nile River in Cairo, Diab Abolibda, a 59-year-old engineer, described how in the presidential election two years ago he favored upstart candidate Ayman Nour over Mubarak. Asked how he felt now that runner-up Nour was serving a five-year prison term for election fraud, a verdict and sentence criticized by many democracy advocates as political punishment for brashly challenging the president's authority, Abolibda let out a hearty laugh and exclaimed, "I'm with Mubarak now!"

Across town outside the Syndicate of Journalists, a few dozen Kifaya protesters chanted "Down, down Mubarak!" as they were hemmed in by hundreds of black-clad security policemen and scores of plainclothes policemen. "I didn't vote," said Mohammed Fawzi, a 26-year-old lawyer, who spent the day observing the Kifaya demonstration instead. "Whether you voted 'yes' or 'no,' the outcome would be the same. The future in Egypt is bad." When asked to elaborate, Fawzi, nervously eyeing policemen who started to show an interest in the interview, said, "Sorry, I'm afraid to say anything more." So long as Egypt's citizens are too ambivalent to vote and too afraid to speak, Egyptian democracy will remain a work in progress.