Friday, March 23, 2007

Under pressure from human rights groups and democracy activists, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice yesterday stepped up criticism of Egypt’s plans to hold a referendum on constitutional amendments critics say will enhance the control of longtime President Hosni Mubarak.

Opposition parties, including the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, are boycotting Monday’s vote, which comes just a week after the Mubarak-dominated legislature approved language amending 34 articles of the constitution.

The most hotly disputed amendments would suspend independent judicial oversight of elections and give Egyptian police enhanced powers to bypass established legal channels to combat terrorism. Another amendment would remove the limit on the number of terms the president can serve.

“The changes will stifle meaningful political participation in Egypt and encroach more on Egyptians’ personal freedoms and rule of law in the country,” said Jennifer Windsor, executive director of the Washington-based Freedom House.

Miss Rice, who visits with Mr. Mubarak in Aswan, Egypt, today at the start of a new round of regional talks on the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, told reporters at the State Department before leaving yesterday she was “really concerned” about the constitutional changes.

“This is a really disappointing outcome,” she said. “We will talk about it and hopefully it will turn out better than expected.”

“As the Middle East moves towards greater openness and greater pluralism and greater democratization, Egypt has got to be in the lead,” she said.

Egyptian democracy activists roundly criticized the State Department’s initial reaction to the referendum. A spokesman Tuesday expressed concern over the amendments, but added the vote was a domestic Egyptian affair.

It was in Cairo in June 2005 that Miss Rice gave a widely noted speech on the need for democracy and greater political reform in the Arab Middle East, with some pointed passages aimed at Egypt, a key U.S. ally. Analysts say the Bush administration’s commitment to the cause has withered as the need for allies in the Iraq war and Iranian nuclear showdown has increased.

The initial “tepid” U.S. reaction “is the latest evidence that the Bush administration has all but abandoned the policy of democracy promotion articulated by [Miss Rice] in Cairo in June 2005,” Andrew Exum and Zack Snyder, researchers at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote in a new analysis.

Mr. Mubarak and his allies defend the amendments as needed to fight terrorism and strengthen the country’s democracy. It would be the first major change to the country’s constitution in 35 years.

The amendments on police powers are meant to “strike a balance between safeguarding national security and public order on the one hand and protecting personal rights and freedoms on the other,” parliament Speaker Fathi Sorour told Egyptian reporters last week.

But the referendum comes just seven days after the Mubarak-dominated parliament approved the constitutional changes. Secular and leftist parties have joined the Muslim Brotherhood in boycotting the vote.

Marc Lynch, a political scientist at William College and author of the influential “Abu Aardvark” blog on Middle Eastern politics,, called the referendum “a crude mockery of promises of political reform.”

“Mubarak is about to do exactly what he always accuses Islamists of secretly planning: Win an election and then use his majority to abolish democracy,” Mr. Lynch wrote.

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