For Egypt’s Mubarak, how much power is enough?

Long backed by generous foreign-aid handouts from the United States, what’s the dictatorship of democracy-crushing Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak up to now? (After Israel, which has routinely received the largest payouts of American taxpayer dollars each year, Egypt has long been next in line. (U.S. Dept. of State))

Supposedly in an effort to stop terrorism, Mubarak is seeking 34 changes in Egypt’s national constitution that “would empower the president to refer ’any terrorist crime to any of the judiciary authorities stated in the constitution or the law.’” However, opponents of the proposed changes say “that means the president can refer suspects to military courts, which have been widely used in the past but are sharply criticized by [human-]rights groups, since their rulings cannot be appealed.” The proposed constitutional changes “come at a time that the United States, Mubarak’s top ally, has reduced public pressure on Egypt to bring greater democracy.” (AP in the
Independent, U.K.)

Yesterday, more than 100 “mainly Islamist lawmakers walked out of Egypt’s parliament…to protest [Mubarak’s] moves to push through constitutional laws that opponents fear will entrench the ruling party’s grip on power.” Mubarak’s National Democratic Party controls the parliament, which “is expected to approve the proposed amendments with a vote on Tuesday.” A public referendum on the proposed changes is expected to be held in April. The proposed reforms “appear to target the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s largest opposition movement, because they include a ban on political work based on religion and give the state sweeping security powers.” (Independent Online, South Africa)

Mubarak told the Arabic-language newspaper Akhbar el-Yom that his proposed constitutional amendments “are meant to strengthen…political parties and facilitate their participation in the coming presidential elections.” (Cited by Xinhua)

Amnesty International, the international, human-rights advocacy organization, has described the proposed changes as “the most serious undermining of human-rights safeguards in Egypt since the state of emergency was re-imposed [by Mubarak] in 1981.” A.I. notes: “The amendments…would give sweeping powers of arrest to the police, grant broad authority to monitor private communications and allow the Egyptian president to bypass ordinary courts and refer people suspected of terrorism to military and special courts, in which they would be unlikely to receive fair trials.” (Amnesty International)

In addition, an A.I. official observed, the proposed changes “would 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. Instead of putting an end to the secret detentions, enforced ’disappearances,’ torture and unfair trials before emergency and military courts, Egyptian [members of parliament] are now being asked to sign away even the constitutional protections against such human-rights violations.” (
Amnesty International)

Mubarak’s proposals may be seen “as part of a government strategy to undermine the opposition Muslim Brotherhood following its improved showing in the 2005 elections” and also “as an attempt to prevent any repetition of events last year, when two leading judges denounced the government’s failure to take action in response to evidence of electoral fraud during the presidential and parliamentary elections in 2005.” (Amnesty International)

Prior to yesterday’s parliamentary debate of the proposed changes, Saad El-Katatni, the Muslim Brotherhood’s spokesman in the national legislature, warned that his party’s members would stage a protest walk-out. He told Egypt’s Al-Ahram Weekly: “The Brothers cannot accept to be an eyewitness to a constitutional crime.”

Other news reports quoted him as saying: “We have decided to boycott these sessions to clear our conscience…and let the National [Democratic] Party bear the responsibility before the people.” Before exiting the legislative chamber yesterday, independent member of parliament Alaa Abdel-Moneim told ruling NDP legislators: “Judgment Day will be tough on you.” By contrast, Abdel-Ahad Gamaleddin, the head of the NDP bloc in the parliament, criticized the opposition’s angry walkout as “intellectual terrorism.” (Independent Online, South Africa)

Anticipating yesterday’s friction in the parliament, a few days before the scheduled debate, the pro-government Egyptian Gazette urged in an editorial that Mubarak’s opponents should “stay…and express their views in the chamber.” It also encouraged members “of the ruling party [to] address [the] opposition’s worries.” After all, the paper added, tacitly acknowledging Mubarak’s strongman rule that it is too timid to criticize directly, “[t]horough and sincere debate of the [constitutional-reform] proposals will ensure [that] the outcome will live up to the public’s expectations and give a strong boost to Egypt’s democratic drive.”