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Crackdown as Egypt votes on constitution

By William Wallis in Cairo
The Financial Times
May 25 2005

Egyptians voted on Wednesday in a referendum on constitutional change amid scattered demonstrations and a police crackdown on opposition groups calling for a boycott.

In a televised address, President Hosni Mubarak, who has ruled Egypt for 24 years, described the changes to the constitution that will allow limited competition in presidential elections for the first time, calling them an important step towards democracy.

The amendment is the centrepiece of reforms introduced by Mr Mubarak under pressure from Washington and a small but growing pro-democracy movement in Egypt. The first contested presidential elections, in which a number of small opposition parties will be able to present candidates, are due in September.

On the streets of several towns and cities on Wednesday tension was high as riot police and pro-government supporters beat and scuffled with small groups of opposition protesters.

Both officially sanctioned opposition parties, which hold a few seats in parliament, and the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, considered the largest opposition force, urged Egyptians to boycott the vote.

Public apathy and cynicism after 53 years of authoritarian rule may play a greater role in an eventual low turnout in Wednesday`s referendum. More than 32.5m Egyptians were eligible to vote.

Critics of the amendment believe that stiff conditions about who can and cannot stand for the presidency will allow the ruling National Democratic party to determine the outcome.

They are campaigning for an end to the current state of emergency, which has applied in Egypt since Mr Mubarak assumed the presidency on the death of Anwar Sadat, and other laws that prevent opposition groups from mobilising support.

At the tomb in downtown Cairo of Saad Pasha, an Egyptian independence hero, hundreds of riot police hemmed in opposition demonstrators while pro-government supporters roamed around freely chanting `yes to Mubarak.`

Witnesses said police abused women taking part in the demonstration, while several men were beaten. About 70 protesters were detained across the country, opposition officials said.
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