Egypt Rejects U.S. Amendments Criticism
Tuesday, March 27,2007 00:00

Egypt on Saturday sharply rejected American criticism over plans to change the constitution, reflecting the tensions between the two allies over demands for democracy here.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s comments before a visit here were a rare U.S. public criticism against Egypt after months of near silence from Washington over reform. They came amid an outcry among Egypt’s opposition groups and rights groups over the planned constitutional amendments, which they say are a setback to democracy.

President Hosni Mubarak defended the amendments in a nationally televised speech on Saturday and said his government would not bend to outside "pressure, dictation or prerequisites."

Egyptian reformists have accused the United States of abandoning its calls for democracy in Egypt, where Mubarak has tightly held power for a quarter-century. In 2005, the Bush administration said Egypt was the cornerstone of its new priority of spreading reform in the region. During a trip to Egypt that year, Rice was outspoken in pressing for change.

Since then, public U.S. pressure on Mubarak has sharply decreased, though U.S. officials insist they have kept up their calls for reform behind the scenes. Earlier this year, Rice praised Egypt as an important ally during a similar visit to the country with little mention of reform.

Egyptian democracy advocates say the United States has decided it is more important to keep Egypt’s support in a range of Mideast crises _ including the Iraq war _ than to push its ally for change. They also believe Washington was worried that greater democracy in Egypt could bring greater power for the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, which made a surprisingly strong showing in parliamentary elections in late 2005.

Mubarak’s ruling party lawmakers passed the 34 amendments to the constitution in parliament earlier this week, and the president hastily scheduled a referendum for Monday to give them final approval.

The opposition, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, has urged Egyptians to boycott the referendum and has threatened to hold protests on the day of the voting, despite a warning from the Interior Ministry that it would not allow demonstrations.

On route to Egypt, where she held talks Saturday with Arab foreign ministers on the Israeli-Arab peace process, Rice expressed concern about the proposed amendments, saying "the hope was that this would be a process that gave voice to all Egyptians."

"I think there’s some danger that that hope is not going to be met," she said late Friday. "Right now I am concerned that it won’t."

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Aboul Gheit quickly denounced the comments, saying, "It is unimaginable that someone would speak about and judge an Egyptian internal political process before it even starts."

"Even if Egypt and the United States have a friendly, strategic relationship, Egypt can’t accept interference in its affairs from any of its friends," he said.

Mubarak’s government says the amendments are aimed at expanding democracy in Egypt, where the ruling party has a lock on nearly all the levers of power. But the opposition says the changes will only increase his hold.

One proposed amendment would ban parties founded on religious denomination, a move apparently aimed at preventing the powerful Muslim Brotherhood _ which is banned but participates in elections through candidates running as independents _ from becoming a legitimate political actor.

Another calls for the creation of an electoral commission, which opponents doubt will be independent and say will diminish the role of judges in monitoring elections. In 2005, some judges blew the whistle on vote fraud, and the opponents fear sidelining them will free the government to more easily fix voting.

A third controversial amendment gives the president strong security powers against terrorism that critics fear will be abused and used against political opponents.

"Egypt’s security, stability and its citizens’ safety are a red line. I will not permit anybody to cross it," Muburak said.

The 78-year-old president also said history had taught him "the dangers of mixing religion with politics," referring to the Muslim Brotherhood. The amendments would cut off those "attempting to strike at the unity of this nation’s Muslims and Christians," he said.