Egypt dials back political reform

Just under two years ago, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in Cairo, delivered her most stirring call for democracy in the Middle East and promised that the era of US support for dictatorships was over.

For 60 years, the US "pursued stability at the expense of democracy," she said, and had "achieved neither. Now, we are taking a different course." She stated that opposition groups "must be free to assemble, and to participate."

Yet today, the policy toward Egypt – which gets about $2 billion a year in US aid – and other allies in the region looks much like those of the previous US administrations that Ms. Rice repudiated.

Back in Egypt on Sunday, a day before the regime of President Hosni Mubarak is expected to pass constitutional amendments that will bar the most popular opposition group from participation and reduce independent oversight of an electoral system riddled with fraud, Rice expressed disappointment, but indicated the US will do little in response.

"The process of reform ... is difficult. It's going to have its ups and downs,'' she told reporters. "It's not a matter to try to dictate to Egypt how this will unfold."

At the moment, what's unfolding is a major step back from President Mubarak's campaign promises to open up the system. Last week, the parliament that his ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) controls approved 34 amendments to Egypt's constitution and hastily scheduled a referendum on the changes for Monday.

Opponents say that the timing makes mounting an effective opposition impossible. The date was set by presidential decree.

Key changes include the removal of independent judicial oversight of elections in favor of an election monitoring commission that will be created along guidelines laid out later by parliament. The changes also ban any party organized around religion, a measure designed to bar the Muslim Brotherhood, the most popular opposition movement. Allies of the regime say that the measure will preserve the secular character of the state.

The motivation for the amendments, charges Rabab al-Mehdi, a professor at the American University in Cairo and a democracy activist, is to "facilitate the ascendancy of Gamal Mubarak to power and ... to curtail the potential rise of any strong confrontational opposition."

Gamal Mubarak is the president's son, and his meteoric rise in the NDP has led many Egyptians to presume that he is his father's preferred successor.

Analysts say that a number of factors have conspired to cause the US to back away from its former uncompromising democracy rhetoric: its urgent need to stabilize Iraq, the desire to drum up support to find a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, discomfort with the fact that most of the region's opposition movements have a strong Islamist tinge, and worries about containing Iran.

Meanwhile, regimes like Egypt's are making changes that amount to a more sophisticated version of the closed politics they've long enjoyed.

The amendments "constitute an effort by the Egyptian regime to increase the appearance of greater balance among the branches of government and of greater opportunities for political parties, while in fact limiting real competition strictly and keeping power concentrated in the hands of the executive branch and the ruling party,'' Nathan Brown, Michele Dunne and Amr Hamzawy wrote in a note for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

In Egypt's last elections, vote-buying and intimidation were widespread. The organization that represents the judges has urged a boycott of Monday's referendum.

Also among the amendments are stipulations that effectively enshrine in the constitution the aspects of the emergency law most hated by democracy activists. The law was ushered in, in 1981, after the assassination of then-President Anwar Sadat. It allows indefinite detention without trial and broad search-and-seizure powers that activists say have been used to intimidate opponents. But the law was subject to periodic renewal; now, the state will have many of those rights in perpetuity.

"The main problems lie in constitutionalizing the emergency laws, which gives the security apparatus leeway to crack [down] on the opposition as well as on individual rights whenever they feel like it," says Mohammed Waked, an activist with the Kifaya [Enough] movement, which has had numerous activists arrested for calling for the end of Mubarak's regime. "The amendments also ... relegate political participation to the space occupied by official parties that are blessed by the regime and the security and have no popular base."

Mubarak and his aides have vigorously defended the changes as steps toward greater democracy. Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit, addressing Rice's disappointment, told reporters that "nobody else has the right to say anything,'' and that the changes were needed to protect Egypt from "extremists" and "radicals."

But the State Department's own human rights review of Egypt last week found that arbitrary detention, torture, and impunity for officials are common and showed little improvement last year.

Activists like Mr. Waked say that the government's pursuit of stability could end up having the opposite effect. He says the "nonconfrontational" approach of groups like the Muslim Brotherhood is failing.

"The opposition will learn, I think, the futility of their mild reformist strategies," he says. "They will either move outside the system and adopt strategies that are more confrontational or they will die and leave the space to other forces that would be willing to do so."

– Sameh Naquib contributed to this report.

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