Protesters claim Egypt has become police state

Riot police and others in plain clothes fought protesters in Cairo’s central Tahrir [Liberation] Square this week as government opponents denounced constitutional amendments which they claim will turn Egypt into a police state for ever.

It could be the dissidents’ last opportunity to protest. On Monday, parliament delivers its final vote on the amendments – in effect a rubber stamp – then the nation will be invited to endorse them through a popular referendum. The exercise is seen by many as a farce: the government claims that about 30 per cent of the electorate turns out to vote, but one of Egypt’s most prominent activist bloggers said the figure was closer to 2 per cent. In either case, the passing of the referendum is a foregone conclusion. The most sweeping change to Egypt’s constitution in 35 years will then be law.

Once the amendments become law, core rights of the citizen enshrined in the present constitution will be gone. Many of those rights are already honoured more in the breach than the observance, as Egypt has been under emergency rule since 1981. Others, however, are new and ominous, including the removal of judicial supervision of elections, which is meant to prevent vote-rigging.

The new constitution will remove the requirement on police to obtain warrants before searching homes or bugging phones and email, and end the right to trial before a judge of “terrorists” – defined broadly to include moderate Islamist opposition politicians. In future, they will be tried by military tribunal

At a small, chaotic demonstration in Tahrir Square on Thursday, a leader of the Kifayah! [Enough!] movement said: “These are not constitutional amendments, it’s a constitutional coup. The aim is to block the remaining channels of democratic participation and resistance, and the ability of the judiciary to address wrongs in the system. The government’s aim is to gain complete control of elections.

“The clause on terrorism gives the government exceptional powers to arrest people, invade their homes and suspend guarantees of civil rights. The clear aim is to achieve perpetual absolutism and dictatorship.”

The reforms are seen as a way for President Hosni Mubarak to pave the way for a smooth transfer of power to his son Gamal, though neither elder nor younger Mubarak will be drawn on the issue of a dynastic succession.

The opposition to the constitutional overhaul has seen a rare alliance emerge between the Muslim Brotherhood, the outlawed but popular Islamist opposition group, and a motley array of socialists, communists and liberals who make up the rest of the opposition.

Democracy in danger

* Founded in 1928 by Hasan el-Banna, the Muslim Brotherhood has been Egypt’s most influential opposition group. After his assassination in 1948, the non-extreme Brotherhood split into moderate and more violent factions. Nowadays it forms the largest opposition block and, even though it has renounced violence, regularly suffers crackdowns.

* Over the past 55 years Egypt has had a turbulent relationship with democracy and the country’s three rulers, Presidents Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak, have swung between democratic concessions and autocracy.

* Concerned by the election gains of Islamists in 2005(20% went to Brotherhood candidates running as independents) and by the election success of Hamas in the Palestinian Territories last year, Mr Mubarak has begun a new crackdown on democratic forces, targeting those with Islamist credentials.

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