Democracy Declared, Not Practised

In a victory for the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) of President Hosni Mubarak, amendments to 34 articles of the constitution were approved last week in a national referendum. While Mubarak described the vote as “a critical step towards the flowering of democracy”, opposition groups and observers pointed out numerous voting irregularities, and decried the absence of judicial oversight.

“The results came as a shock,” Diaa Rashwan, political analyst at the government-run al- Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies told IPS. “This latest referendum only confirms the ruling party’s insistence on continuing its usual vote-rigging methods.”

Constitutional issues have been at the forefront of public debate since December, when Mubarak called for the amendments promising a “new era of political reform.” The articles recommended for change covered a range of contentious issues, including the limits of presidential authority, judicial supervision of the electoral process and executive powers to combat terrorism.

Most opposition groups condemned the proposed amendments from the outset, saying they would only serve to cement the NDP’s longstanding political dominance.

“The amendments aim to strengthen the notion of presidential inheritance,” Abdel Halim Qandil, editor-in-chief of opposition weekly al-Karama had told IPS in January, in a reference to the alleged presidential ambitions of Mubarak’s son, Gamal.

Critics of the changes are particularly concerned with amendments to articles 88 and 179 of the national charter. According to opposition figures and human rights activists, the two amendments will serve to remove judicial supervision over national elections and grant the president broad powers of arrest in the name of fighting terrorism.

Despite these reservations, however, the changes were approved by the NDP-controlled parliament in mid-March. Days later, it was announced that the issue would be decided by way of national referendum on Mar. 26.

In response, a coalition of opposition groupings — including the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood along with prominent secular parties — announced a decision to boycott the vote.

“We decided not to participate in what amounts to political theatre,” Saad al-Husseini, secretary-general of the Muslim Brotherhood bloc in parliament told IPS. “Virtually all the opposition as well as intellectuals, judges and professors of constitutional law agreed to boycott the referendum and refuse these changes that will destroy rights and freedoms previously guaranteed by the constitution.”

Nevertheless, some 76 percent of those who voted in last week’s referendum cast their ballots in favour of the changes, according to official tallies. The state press noted that more than nine million citizens — roughly 27 percent of Egypt’s 36 million registered voters — turned out to vote.

“The Egyptian people were the real winners,” Mubarak proclaimed shortly afterwards. “The referendum means more democracy and reform.”

“The high turnout is a clear indication that the opposition’s boycott has failed,” NDP secretary-general Safwat el-Sherif declared.

Opposition groups and rights activists, however, were quick to challenge the official figures. According to a report issued after the vote by an umbrella group of ten independent human rights organisations, the turnout was probably closer to three percent of registered voters.

Even the government-appointed National Council for Human Rights noted the “weakness of participation”, putting turnout at as little as two percent.

“Despite the government’s mobilisation of state employees to vote for the changes, the turnout still didn’t surpass two percent,” al-Husseini said. “This is proof that the results were fabricated.”

Rights groups also reported a number of other irregularities, such as the closure of certain polling stations to voters and the practice of bussing government employees in to vote en masse. They also criticised the practice of confining judicial oversight to primary, but not secondary, polling stations.

“With judges prevented from monitoring any of the secondary polling stations, the rigging was obvious,” Moustafa Bakri, editor-in-chief of independent weekly al-Esboua and independent member of parliament told IPS.

“The referendum was most certainly rigged,” agreed Rashwan. “Government employees, responsible for monitoring the vote in secondary voting stations, stuffed ballot boxes under the supervision of security personnel.”

According to Rashwan, the turnout figure was put at 27 percent “so that the referendum would compare positively with the 2005 parliamentary election.” That race, which was subject to full judicial oversight, saw only a 24 percent turnout.

Many judges, meanwhile, distanced themselves from the questionable results.

“We don’t want to be used as a fig leaf to provide legitimacy to this shameful event,” Ahmed Saber, a member of the outspoken Egyptian Judges Club, was quoted as saying in the wake of the vote.

According to spokesmen for the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s most formidable opposition force, the referendum only confirms the ruling party’s distaste for political pluralism.

“This kind of behaviour makes the young lose hope in our peaceful pursuit of political change,” said al-Husseini. “While the Muslim Brotherhood teaches them to be patient, the regime makes this difficult for us by simply doing whatever it wants.”