The referendum on amendments to Egypt’s constitution on March 26 went almost exactly as expected by most independent observers. The turn-out was almost non-existent, as a result of an opposition boycott and widespread cynicism about the referendum. Government figures put the turn-out at 27 percent of the 35 million electorate, slightly higher than the declared target of 25 percent; but this was evidently the modern, more realistic equivalent of the 99.9 percent victories usually won by Arab dictators. Independent monitors put the turn-out at between five and 10 percent; some voting stations were reported to have closed early with hardly anyone having voted at all.
The next day the government announced that the amendments had been endorsed by 75 percent of those who voted, and the constitution was therefore amended as proposed by the government and approved by Parliament (dominated by Mubarak’s National Democratic Party) the previous week. However, the country’s judges, traditionally charged with overseeing elections, immediately rejected the declared results, saying that government rules had made it impossible for them to oversee the polls. Ahmed Sabr, a spokesman for the Judges Association, told the AFP that ballot-boxes that were empty when checked by judges were suddenly found to be full of votes a short time later. The judges had also raised questions about the country’s parliamentary elections in 2005; unsurprisingly, one of the amendments to the constitution supposedly approved in the referendum reduces the judicial oversight of future elections.
None of this is likely to make the slightest difference to President Husni Mubarak, who has ruled Egypt since 1981 under emergency law, and should not, on the face of it, need additional powers to stay in office and arrange the selection of his successor (who is generally believed to be his son Gamal, [pic, right] though the latter denies this). Yet he has found it necessary to enact no less than 34 amendments to the constitution that will do more to turn Egypt into a police state than strengthen democracy and fight terrorism, as the regime claims. Many of the rights enshrined in the present constitution are more often breached than observed, because of the longstanding state-of-emergency laws.
According to human-rights activists and analysts, the power and repressive methods at the disposal of the Egyptian governmentwere already vast before. Tareq Khater, director of the Association for Human Rights and Legal Aid, for instance, says that torture of suspects is routine in Egyptian police stations, and an important weapon in the war on dissent. “Torture has become systematic under president Mubarak. He uses it to force people to submit to his absolute power and create fear, so that people think twice about disobedience,” he said. He added that Mubarak maintains complete control by making all appointments to key positions himself.
“The president chooses the ministers, the prosecutors, the head of the supreme court, the head of the court of appeal, the head of the police, the head of the army,” he said. “He has complete and absolute power; even legislation proposed by the People's Assembly has to go through him.” This is despite the fact that the Assembly is dominated by the ruling National Democratic Party. He estimates that there could be as many as 80,000 prisoners held in Egypt's jails without trial, but he admits that it is impossible to “quantify the scale of police brutality because national human-rights groups are not big enough for the task.” Other groups have put the same figure at about 14,000.
Given the extent of the regime's powers and its readiness to use them ruthlessly, it is not very surprising that many Egyptians feel it prudent not to defy Mubarak too strongly and openly. According to Mohammed Said, a political analyst at the al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, his country is paralysed by apathy. He said: “The regime is very powerful but it has no vision for the country's future. Its power derives from the apathy of the public. There is a mood for change but no desire for activity because all channels for participation are blocked.”
But this reluctance to defy the regime strongly and openly does not apply to the Ikhwan al-Muslimeen and its supporters. The largest and most popular opposition group, the Ikhwan is legally banned, but that has not prevented it from campaigning politically, though its candidates are forced to stand in elections as independents. This has secured the Ikhwan strong public support, although many secular Egyptians dismiss it as ‘Islamist'. In the parliamentary elections of 2005, for example, the Ikhwan secured 88 parliamentary seats, to the surprise of many Egyptians.
Its courage and political gains have transformed the movement into a serious threat in the eyes of president Mubarak, and the constitutional amendments are therefore seen as directed mainly against it. This is reinforced by the fact that the regime has been unusually aggressive in cracking down on the Ikhwan since December, throwing into jail hundreds of its members. Moreover, the amendments include a formal ban on political parties being established on the basis of religion, and also changes to electoral law.
But whether directed against the Ikhwan or not, the amendments include many outrageous proposals that would make Mubarak's grip on power much tighter. One proposal, for instance, calls for giving the president the power to refer “any terrorist crime to any of the judicial authorities stated in the constitution or the law.” This means that Mubarak will personally select every judge who will hear any case against those charged with “acts of terrorism” – most of whom are expected to be members of the Ikhwan or other Islamic groups. If passed into law, the proposals would give the police sweeping powers of arrest and authority to monitor communications. Equally outrageously, the amendments call for an end to judicial monitoring of elections and for the creation of a government-appointed commission for this task.
Not surprisingly, international and local human-rights groups, analysts and media have criticised the government and Mubarak strongly for proposing the amendments. Amnesty International, for example, has condemned the amendments as the “greatest erosion” of rights in Egypt in 26 years. Mohamed al-Sayed Said, an analyst at the Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, has said that the amendments amount to a “constitutional coup”, and condemned the elite within government for abusing the “reform process” to increase Mubarak's already excessive powers. The Western media have even called for action against the proposals by the US and the European Union. The Financial Times of London, for instance, said in a highly critical editorial on March 22 that “Egypt's new restrictions should spark an international outcry”. The International Herald Tribune – in an equally strong editorial on March 20 – called on president George W. Bush to “tell Mubarak privately that this is not the path to long-term stability”, adding that the EU and Washington “should also speak out publicly against the most dangerous pieces of legislation”.
President Bush has publicly expressed his disappointment at the amendments, which he said would obstruct democratisation, andUS secretary of state Condoleezza Rice has also expressed similar criticism. But she was in Egypt soon afterwards to join the foreign ministers of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the UAE to work out a new peace deal between Palestinians and Israel. She called on them to establish “peace relations” with Israel and recognise it. Egypt, which in fact already has an embassy in Israel, is cooperating with Washington to force a dubious peace with Israel on the Palestinians, which the Hamas movement openly and strongly opposes. Clearly, the US and Egypt see each other as allies and any public criticism is seen as an act of hostility.
The Egyptian government's problem is that the Ikhwan is seen in the West as a “moderate” Islamic group that is far from radical, and that any strong government action against it would not only radicalise it but would also bring it even greater public support. Foreign Affairs magazine, for instance, said in its March/April issue that the Ikhwan is not only “moderate” but also “genuinely democratic” and that the Bush administration should establish positive relations with it. The movement certainly promotes itself as such; its leaders publicly deny its being a “theocratic organisation”, and claim to believe in democratic rule. To take just one example, Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh – in a long article in the Guardian of London on March 16 – complained that the movement was wrongly accused of being a theocratic and terrorist organisation.
“In fact, we reject the theocratic model of the state and believe in a peaceful transfer of power; we respect the people's choice through the ballot-box,” he said.
Mubarak can hardly make similar claims.