Constitution changes would bring dark future: Akef

Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood said yesterday that changes to the country’s constitution would usher in a dark future for the most populous Arab country.

Hundreds of riot police deployed in downtown Cairo on the eve of a referendum on the constitutional amendments which rights groups and opposition activists say are a step backward for freedom and democracy.

“Based on these amendments, unless God shows mercy on us, the future for this country is dark,” Brotherhood leader Mohamed Mahdi Akef told Reuters in an interview.

“They’ve killed off everyone’s hopes. Even those with a shred of hope had it killed off,” he added.

Egypt’s government says the constitutional amendments are needed to keep extremism at bay, but both secular and Islamist opponents see the changes as an attempt to shore up the ruling party’s hold on power and say the vote will be rigged.

The amendments include an anti-terrorism clause giving police sweeping powers of arrest and surveillance. Opposition groups including the Brotherhood, which has a wide popular base, plan to boycott the vote.

“It’s one hundred per cent rigged,” Akef said. “Watch the balloting stations tomorrow. It’ll succeed. (Egypt) has armies of civil servants and factory workers.”

The amendments would allow President Hosni Mubarak to dissolve parliament unilaterally and weaken judicial oversight of elections, which have been marred by complaints of widespread irregularities. The changes would also bar political activity based on religion, seen as a swipe at the Brotherhood, the country’s strongest opposition group.

The anti-government Kefaya protest movement called on Egyptians to dress in black and raise banners of mourning on Monday, and asked activists to hold peaceful protests and strikes across the country.

Protests were planned in Cairo and the port city of Alexandria, as well as in London and Washington, and some analysts expected Egyptian authorities to use force to break up any public show of dissent.

“They obviously are determined to break any gathering of any significant number. Nonetheless, I think many people will try to rally or protest in a variety of ways,” said analyst Mohammed el-Sayed Said. Several hundred people protested against the amendments in provincial towns of Ismailia and el-Arish amid heavy security.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, visiting Egypt, voiced concerns over the amendments during talks with Mubarak but said political change would have “ups and downs” and said she would not tell Egypt how to proceed with reforms.

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