Egyptian FM slams Rice

Egypt’s foreign minister sharply criticised US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice after she raised concerns over planned constitutional amendments, saying hours before her arrival in the country yesterday that Egypt would not accept interference even from “friends.” Rice is holding key talks in southern Egypt with Arab foreign ministers over the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. But her visit coincides with a political storm in Egypt over the changes to the constitution, which the Egyptian opposition and some rights groups have denounced as a blow to democracy in this close US ally.

The government has hastily scheduled a referendum on the amendments for tomorrow, which the opposition has said it will boycott. Opposition groups have also vowed to stage street demonstrations, despite an Interior Ministry warning that demonstrators would be dealt with harshly.  “Demonstrations aiming at tarnishing democratic life on this day will not be allowed,” an unidentified ministry official said in comments published in the state-run newspaper Al-Aharam.

Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit denounced Rice’s comments over the amendments, saying, “It is unimaginable that someone would speak about and judge an Egyptian internal political process before it even starts.” “Even if Egypt and the United States have a friendly, strategic relationship, Egypt can’t accept interference in its affairs from any of its friends,” he said during a press conference with visiting UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who met earlier in the day with President Hosni Mubarak. “This is all about the Egyptian people who will determine their vision, and what they want on the ground, which will take place in the referendum on Monday,” Aboul Gheit said.

On route to Egypt, Rice expressed concern about the proposed amendments, saying “the hope was that this would be a process that gave voice to all Egyptians.” “I think there’s some danger that that hope is not going to be met,” she said. “Right now I am concerned that it won’t.” Rice’s comment was a rare criticism of Egypt at a time when Washington is trying to rally Cairo’s support on the Israeli-Arab peace process and the crises in Iraq and Lebanon.

In 2005, Washington had said democratic reform in Egypt was a top priority, but then largely silenced its pressure on Mubarak for change over the next two years.  Egypt’s parliament- dominated by ruling party lawmakers- approved 34 amendments to the constitution, a package Mubarak says is aimed at expanding democracy in Egypt. But the opposition says the amendments will restrict freedoms and cement Mubarak’s hold on power.

One proposed amendment would ban parties founded on religious denomination, a move apparently aimed at preventing the powerful Muslim Brotherhood from becoming a legitimate political actor. Another allows the government to create an electoral commission, which opponents say will hinder independent monitoring of elections and allow more of the vote fraud that has plagued past votes. A third gives the president strong security powers against terrorism that critics fear will be abused and used against political opponents. Amnesty International has called the anti-terror provision the “greatest erosion of rights in 26 years” in Egypt.

On Saturday, President Mubarak defended the amendments in a nationally televised speech, saying they created a necessary balance between civil rights and stability.  “Egypt’s security, stability and its citizens’ safety are a red line. I will not permit anybody to cross it,” the 78-year-old president said. Mubarak also said history had taught him “the dangers of mixing religion with politics,” an obvious reference to the Muslim Brotherhood. The amendments would cut off those “attempting to strike at the unity of this nation’s Muslims and Christians,” he said.

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