- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 15, 2011

CAIRO | Egypt’s transition to democracy after 30 years of authoritarian rule faces a major test on Saturday when Egyptians vote in a referendum on amendments to the constitution.

Opponents are pushing heavily for a “no” vote, saying the changes don’t go far enough and that the ruling military is rushing the process.

If the changes are rejected, the military will have to go back to the drawing board and may extend the six-month deadline it had set for handing over power to an elected civilian government.

A “yes” vote could mean parliamentary and presidential elections to be held before the end of the year. But critics say that time frame is too rushed and will only benefit the party of ousted President Hosni Mubarak and the Muslim Brotherhood, the two largest and best organized political forces in the country.

Regardless of the outcome, the referendum gives Egyptians their first taste in decades of a free vote and likely will be remembered as a milestone in Egypt’s road to democracy after Mr. Mubarak’s 29 years in power.

Under Mr. Mubarak, elections and referendums were plagued by widespread vote fraud to ensure regime victories.

Mr. Mubarak stepped down on Feb. 11 after 18 days of unprecedented popular protests. Since then, the country of 80 million has been struggling with the shift to democratic rule, with the ruling military overwhelmed by an explosion of protests, strikes, sectarian violence and a surge in crime.

As it pushes for a quick transfer of power, the military has been the target of growing international scrutiny for alleged human rights violations that include torturing and beating detainees and the use of military courts to try civilians without due judicial process.

The proposed amendments include a limit on presidents to two, four-year terms and allow independents and opposition members to run for the country’s highest office, ending what had been heavy restrictions on who could be a candidate for president. The changes also would ban anyone who has dual nationality, one foreign parent or a foreign spouse from running.

The amendments would restore full judicial supervision of elections, seen as key to preventing fraud. They also would put limits on the emergency laws that have been in place for 30 years and give police near unlimited powers: Under the new rules, a referendum would be required to extend emergency law beyond six months.

Voters in Saturday’s referendum will be asked to cast ballots to say “yes” or “no” to the entire package of nine changes.

The proposed amendments, drawn up by a panel of legal scholars appointed by the military, are intended to bring just enough change to the current constitution - which the military suspended after coming to power - to ensure that upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections are free and fair.

But critics say that doesn’t go far enough. They contend the entire constitution must be scrapped and a new one drawn up to guarantee that Egypt is spared future dictators.

Egypt has been ruled by men of military backgrounds since 1952, and the current constitution outlines a system that puts overwhelming power in the hands of the president.

The proposed amendments “are a step in the right direction, but they are not the end of the road,” said Waleed el-Koumi, one of the activists behind the 18-day uprising that forced Mr. Mubarak to step down. “The aim is for us to have a new constitution.”

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