- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 17, 2011

CAIRO | Egyptians are preparing to vote Saturday on constitutional amendments that critics say would put a Band-Aid on an illegitimate document and ensure government rule by Hosni Mubarak’s former party and the Muslim Brotherhood.

In their first free election in recent history, Egyptians will vote “yes” or “no” for a package of proposed amendments that would set the stage for parliamentary elections in June and presidential election in September.

The amendments include temporary democratic reforms intended to curb some of the near-absolute powers enjoyed by Mr. Mubarak and require the government to draft a new constitution - reforms called for during 18 days of protest that drove Mr. Mubarak out of office last month.

But critics, many of whom demonstrated daily against Mr. Mubarak’s nearly 30 years of autocratic rule, are calling for a temporary constitution to be drafted immediately.

They argue that if elections are held in June, political parties that have formed since Mr. Mubarak’s ouster will not have time to raise funds or campaign effectively. The former ruling National Democratic Party and the Muslim Brotherhood are the only parties that are organized and funded sufficiently to run campaigns over next 2 1/2 months.

“Only Muslim Brotherhood and National Democratic Party are ready for elections - and they will win,” said activist Amr Fekry in an email. “And it will not be a parliament which reflects the people in Egypt.”

Though Egypt’s military has assumed oversight of a transitional government, members of the National Democratic Party still in power are the subject of constant protests by crowds in Cairo that want to rid the country of the former regime.

The once-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood is better received by pro-democracy activists, but many point out that the Brotherhood’s Islamist ideology does not reflect the beliefs of the entire nation.

Activists also worry that there is no clear contingency plan if Egyptians reject the amendments.

“The logical thing is that the army will start to think about a new constitution as people really want it,” Mr. Fekry said. “But there are no guarantees.”

Other Egyptians, who took to the streets in support of the uprising, say stability and economic recovery should now be top priorities. After seven weeks of turmoil, the Egyptian stock market remains closed and the tourism industry has all but flat-lined.

Business development specialist Amir Mohsen says the economic situation is improving too slowly, and the amendments are more constructive than continued protests. “It’s not the final thing we look for yet,” he said. “But it’s first step.”

The kind of stability that would lead to steady economic recovery, however, appears to be an increasingly illusive. Protests erupt daily across the city, for a large assortment of reasons.

At the University of Cairo, students and faculty accuse administrators allied with the former ruling party of corruption and overcharging students. Many schools have been closed for weeks, with no plans of reopening.

“When out demands are answered, we will stop protesting,” said Israh Samir, who sat with two friends on stone steps at the university carrying signs that read, “Get out” and “Game over.”

Outside the state television building last week, surrounded by barbed wire left over from other protests, hundreds of Coptic Christians shook large wooden crosses amid heavy security.

Copts make up about 10 percent of the population and have long complained about religious discrimination. Thirteen people were killed in sectarian violence last week after a cross-religious romantic romance lead to church burning.

“It is not safe to depend on the army,” said Father Matias Nasser Macarious, the pastor of a church in Ezbet El-Nakhl, a poor community of Christian sanitation workers. “When he wants to shoot someone, he shoots the Christian people.”

Not far from the Christian protests last Friday, hundreds of Muslims and Christians gathered in Tahrir Square, demanding the end to sectarian tensions. At the podium, a sheikh and a priest together condemned the church burning.

“Muslims and Christians equals Egypt,” read many signs, while crowds chanted, “The people demand unity.”

The Egyptian army, led by 75-year-old Defense Minister Field Marshal Mohammed Tantawi, now appears to be juggling the interests of the protesters with attempting to establish order in the streets.

Since the collapse of the regime on Feb. 11, the army repeatedly has responded to protesters’ ongoing demands - dismissing the prime minister and standing by as activists stormed security forces offices.

Last Saturday, the army announced it was rebuilding the destroyed church, and many protesters voluntarily dispersed after nine days of 24-hour demonstrations. But others said they were forced out early Sunday with “electric batons” and “fists,” according to Egyptian news source, Ahram Online.

Meanwhile, Egyptian state news Tuesday announced the dismantling of the hated security police, long accused of secretly detaining and torturing people.

Activists hailed the move, but some also noted that everyday security is now sparce, with most of the regular police force rarely seen on the streets doing anything other than directing traffic.

Protesters say the largest security threat are the group quickly becoming known as “counter-protesters,” which is suspected of supporting the ousted regime. Last week clashes broke out at several protests in Cairo.

“[There is] still a lot of turbulence and violence and bullying,” said Mohamed Khalil, an activist from Alexandria, Egypt’s second largest city. “That makes people very afraid about their lives and their kids. This week we saw police on street but with out real effectiveness.”

Amidst the chaos, the army also appears to be working towards a swift transition towards civilian rule. But analysts say that crackdowns like the one that dispersed the Christian protesters, and also hundreds of demonstrators in Tahrir Square the week prior are likely to continue.

Dan Tschirgi, a professor of political science at the American University of Cairo says eventually, the army will assert its might.

“I feel it is virtually inevitable that the military clamp down on the free-running demonstrations at some point in the near future,” Mr. Tschirgi said in an email. “A country simply cannot be run in the conditions that are now obtained. The question really becomes that of what political values will the military uphold.”

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