Egypt’s New Rules Hit Islamic Group, Vote Monitors

Egypt’s parliament endorsed constitutional changes that ban religious political parties, reduce independent monitoring of elections and allow the president to override civil liberties to fight terrorism.

Lawmakers voted late yesterday to approve the changes that critics said mocked pledges by President Hosni Mubarak to democratize Egypt.

“Instead of broadening democracy, the amendments are a setback,’’ said Mohammed al-Sayed Said, head of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, a government-funded think-tank. It is difficult “to take these measures seriously as democratic reform,’’ said Hala Mustafa, editor of the quarterly journal Democracy.

The prohibition on faith-affiliated parties bars the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest opposition group, from fielding candidates in future presidential elections, analysts said. Mubarak, 78, who has ruled Egypt for 25 years, ends his fifth term in 2011.

Passage of the constitutional changes followed two years of turbulence during which secular and Islamic groups repeatedly demonstrated against Mubarak’s rule. Last week, police detained 26 demonstrators in Cairo at a rally against the amendments.

Decision Making

Mubarak promised changes in Egypt’s system of one-person rule. The amendments will “broaden the scope of popular participation in decision making,’’ he told the newspaper Akhbar el-Yom at the weekend. The amendments will be put to a referendum on March 26, the government announced today

The referendum was originally scheduled for April 4, and government critics said the change was designed to narrow the opportunity for demonstrations. “It aims at reducing the time available for the opposition to hold popular activities,’’ said Mohammed Habib, the Muslim Brotherhood’s deputy chairman.

For the U.S., the new measures represent a mixed outcome of pressure on Egypt. In 2005, President George W. Bush singled out Egypt, a recipient of $2 billion in annual aid, as ripe for democratic changes to help promote his policy of encouraging democratization in the Middle East as a safeguard against terrorism. Egyptian nationals have been involved in international terrorism, including Ayman al-Zawahiri, the top aide to al-Qaeda leader Osama bin-Laden.

Political protests have become frequent while arrests and beatings of bloggers, demonstrators and other political opponents of Mubarak increased. Egyptians contend that pressure from the Bush administration eased as the U.S. became embroiled in Iraq and concerned about an Islamic political surge.

Ruling Party

“The U.S. has too many interests in the region to take any action against its allies,’’ said Mohammed Zarie, who heads the Egyptian Association for the Assistance of Prisoners, a human rights non-governmental organization.

The constitutional amendments passed with 315 votes out of 454 in Parliament, over the two-thirds needed for passage. All the votes came from Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party. Opposition parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood, voted against the measures. The late night call for the vote preempted opposition plans to protest outside parliament in central Cairo today.

In 2005, The Brotherhood won 88 seats in parliamentary elections, the strongest showing in its 85-year history. Brotherhood candidates ran as independents because, under previous law, the group was formally banned from politics. Under the constitution’s now revamped Article 5, the prohibition can’t be challenged in court.

Supporters Arrested

“It’s clear that the Muslim Brotherhood will be totally disallowed,’’ said al-Sayed Said.

Safwat el-Sherif, the chairman of Egypt’s upper house of parliament and a member of the NDP, accused the Brotherhood of trying to “exploit religion for its own ends.’’

The amendments “maintain national unity,’’ he told reporters in Cairo.

In recent months, there have been crackdowns on the Brotherhood. More than 200 members are in jail, while hundreds of others have been detained and then released. Police jailed 47 members in the past week on charges of belonging to an illegal organization. Courts have frozen assets of members amounting to about $200 million.

A new amendment eliminates vote monitoring by political detractors of Mubarak: judges. Under Article 88 of the constitution, they will no longer oversee precinct polls and will be restricted to central counting stations. A group of magistrates last year contended that both the 2005 presidential and parliamentary votes were fraudulent. Mubarak won 88 percent of the presidential tally.

Security Controls

“The funny thing about this amendment is that no one ever said judges were the problem in our elections,’’ said Mustafa, the editor of Democracy. “The problem is the police and bureaucrats interfering with the vote.’’

As part of the changes, the president can override safeguards against wiretapping, home invasion and arbitrary arrest guaranteed by other articles in the constitution if they are deemed to “hinder’’ efforts to provide “security in the face of dangers of terror,’’ according to the text.

Human rights groups said the measure institutionalizes abuse. The amendments “simply entrench the long-standing system of abuse under Egypt’s state of emergency powers and give the misuse of those powers a bogus legitimacy,’’ said a statement issued by Amnesty International, the London-based rights organization.

“By pushing through these amendments, the government will write into permanent law the emergency-style powers that have been used to violate human rights over more than two decades,’’ Amnesty said.

In a statement two days ago, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit said that “no foreign parties have the right to criticize, review or comment on the amendments.’’

To contact the reporter on this story: Daniel Williams in Cairo at [email protected]

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