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.
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.
Shortly after Wasili finished his interview, the same pro-Mubarak group arrived at the press syndicate, in a fleet of minibuses. Kept back from the men and women of Kifaya at first by the riot police, the pro-Mubarak gang was eventually allowed through. The heated chanting from both sides quickly evolved into a melee.
The extent of the crackdown in Egypt now poses a challenge for the US, which says it wants fast political change in the Middle East but is also a staunch ally of Mubarak's Egypt, which made peace with Israel more than 20 years ago and has received about $2 billion in US aid a year ever since.
Wednesday, Kifaya members were dragged into the crowds of the Mubarak supporters, and beaten badly about the face and kicked repeatedly when they fell to the ground. But the Mubarak supporters' fury seemed to be especially focused on women, a number of whom were spat on, dragged by their hair to the ground, and repeatedly kicked.
In one instance, Kifaya member Ragab Mahdi, a young woman, was trapped against the grate for an underground garage with a few other members of her group with riot police between her and the pro-Mubarak men.
As the riot police began to move aside to allow her attackers through, Ms. Mahdi screamed, "What are you doing, they're going to kill us."
An Egyptian journalist off to the side urged the police to intervene. But one officer told him, "Our orders are to allow this to happen." After the Mubarak supporters beat Mahdi for a few minutes, older men in suits working with the attackers told them to back off. Her clothes torn and her body bruised, she was bundled into a taxi and taken to safety.
Turnout for the referendum was light, with no lines at polling places. But even with opposition groups urging a boycott, the majority of Egyptians are apathetic about the political process, which has never allowed for real opposition, and the amendment seemed certain to pass.
At the Saidia School in Cairo's Giza district, a trickle of voters filtered in under a huge yellow banner that said "Yes to honest elections." It had been placed there "with the compliments of Mohammed Abu Naim."
Mr. Naim is a member of the ruling National Democratic Party policy committee headed by President Mubarak's son, Gamal.
The younger Mubarak is often touted as his father's successor and has been behind most of Egypt's recent political and economic reforms. The streets around the polling place were festooned with banners of support for Mubarak, many of the signs were sponsored by state-owned companies. "Our 14,000 employees say yes to Hosni,'' was a typical example.
Saifa Abdul Aziz, an accountant for a government-run veterinary school, says she voted in favor of the amendment. "I don't really know what this is about but I feel it's a yes to Hosni Mubarak. He's a national hero."
Asked if she thought the referendum was enough change for Egypt, she looked over her shoulder at the plain-clothes security man listening to the interview. "Well, no. It's not enough but I don't want to say more. You don't want me to get in trouble, do you?"