Egypt sets early referendum vote
Accused of trying to curb opposition
CAIRO -- The Egyptian president yesterday scheduled a referendum next week on constitutional amendments that would limit the country's largest opposition movement, drawing accusations that the government was speeding up the process to avoid debate.
The government says the changes will help increase democracy in a country where President Hosni Mubarak has ruled unchallenged for a quarter-century. But opponents say the amendments are part of a plan to ensure the 78-year-old president's son succeeds him in a future election.
Mubarak set the national referendum for Monday, more than a week earlier than expected.
Some opposition members promptly called for a boycott of the referendum. But the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest opposition movement, said it might call instead for its supporters to vote against the measures. The brotherhood will decide within a day whether to participate in the referendum, said Mohammed Saad el-Katatni, the head of the group's political bloc.
"They have brought forward the date of the referendum like any criminal who wants to get rid of the corpse quickly," said Hamdeen Sabahi, a legislator and founder of Al Karama -- a small, unregistered, and secular opposition party.
"This is the constitution of the ruling party, not of Egyptians," he said and urged people to boycott. "It's a crime against the Egyptians and kills any hope of peaceful transfer of power."
There was no official explanation for the decision, which was issued as a presidential decree.
Police blocked opposition supporters from protesting outside the Egyptian Parliament yesterday. Several dozen demonstrators reconvened outside the press syndicate in downtown Cairo, and police said six activists were arrested.
The opposition says the amendments will restrict judicial supervision of elections they deem vital to preventing vote fraud. The changes would also permanently write strong presidential security powers into the constitution, which opponents fear will be abused.
The 454-seat parliament approved the 34 amendments late Monday after a marathon discussion that the opposition boycotted, though it joined in the final vote. The amendments passed with 315 votes in favor and 113 votes against.
Opponents also believe the amendments aim to ward off any election challenge from the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Islamic fundamentalist group scored a surprise victory in 2005 parliamentary elections, winning about a fifth of the seats.