Egyptian vote marred by violence
During a referendum on election laws Wednesday, democracy activists were jailed and harassed.
A referendum Wednesday that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's closest aides said would show the world his regime is moving toward democracy instead became a showcase of the regime's tough tactics to jail, harass, and intimidate its opponents.Skip to next paragraph
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Egyptians went to the polls to cast a yes or no vote on constitutional changes that would allow for partially competitive presidential elections in September, but still with tight government control over who can be a candidate.
Early Wednesday 15 leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist opposition group pushing for democratic reform, which had urged a boycott of the vote, were arrested. The arrests added to the roughly 3,000 activists from the movement jailed in recent weeks.
Later in the day in downtown Cairo, two small protests by the secular opposition group Kifaya, or Enough, which had also called for a boycott, were set upon by larger gangs of young men armed with sticks and waving posters of President Mubarak. Thousands of Egyptian riot police stood idly by.
Both groups said the referendum was a sham and that the constitutional changes were carefully crafted to keep Mubarak in power, and would not encourage more political participation.
Wednesday's incidents were part of a swelling wave of oppressive tactics against opposition groups, presumably in the run-up to this fall's presidential and parliamentary elections.
The Bush administration has been publicly silent on these incidents and has praised the constitutional amendment as an important step.
First lady Laura Bush, who visited the country Sunday and spent most of her time with Egypt's first lady Suzanne Mubarak, called President Mubarak's decision to allow competitors to run against him at the next election "bold and wise." Her comments drew waves of derision from Egypt's opposition groups.
Mrs. Bush said that a slow reform process might be in Egypt's best interests. "You know that each step is a small step, that you can't be quick. It's not always wise to be,'' she said.
"This is just more evidence of the deal between the US and Mubarak to put on a democratization show, without any results,'' says Adel Wasili, a Kifaya movement member. "Reform is a fiction the government is trying to sell to the people to trick them."
Mr. Wasili was speaking as a group of about 150 male and female Kifaya demonstrators chanted anti-Mubarak slogans and waved banners on the steps of Egypt's Journalists' Syndicate building. They were watched by at least five times that many riot police.
An hour earlier, the protesters fled from another location as a group of men, who said they were supporters of Mubarak's National Democratic Party, attacked them with sticks, fists, and heavy cardboard posters of the president. Some of the men said they were government employees, while others said they worked at a chain of gas stations owned by a prominent Mubarak supporter.