By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 27, 2007
CAIRO, March 26 -- Magdi Riyadh entered the sun-washed schoolyard at the Talaat Harb High School at noon Monday to vote on amendments to Egypt's constitution that the government has called a step toward democratic reform. Opponents have derided the measures as a charade aimed at fortifying the state's already unassailable authority and repressing the country's powerful Islamic opposition.
For an hour, no one else came. In the end, his name was registered elsewhere, and he didn't vote. Neither did Samar Ahmed, tending her stationery store down the street, past lonely posters calling the referendum a vote "for the sake of Egypt's future." She had no idea what the amendments were about. Nor did Hassan Shafei, running a store for auto parts.
"I haven't given one single moment of thought about it," the 25-year-old said in downtown Cairo. "There is no one here who cares about the referendum, no one except the government. And what the government wants to happen will happen."
Apathy, resignation and resentment greeted the referendum on amendments to 34 articles of Egypt's constitution that were approved last week by parliament, dominated by the National Democratic Party of President Hosni Mubarak. The ruling party, in power in various incarnations since 1952, mobilized its vast apparatus to get out the vote, deploying 370,000 activists and supporters, working phones through the night and busing in employees of state-owned companies to locales such as the Talaat Harb school.
But the country's major opposition groups, foremost among them the Muslim Brotherhood, boycotted the vote. Information Minister Anal el-Feki said preliminary turnout figures showed that between 23 and 27 percent of voters showed up, almost precisely the government's 25 percent goal for turnout. But human rights groups and election monitors said turnout was often in single digits, and some stations ended up closing early.
"This vote is a step backward for freedom, for democracy and for the rights of the people," said Ali Abdel Fattah, a spokesman for the Brotherhood, Egypt's oldest and most powerful Islamic opposition group. "It places every Egyptian under threat."
The government has described the amendments as a modernization of a constitution drafted in 1971. It says the amendments will shift powers from the president to the cabinet and lawmakers, especially over the budget; stipulate a quota for women's representation in parliament; and make way for an anti-terrorism law that will supersede the emergency powers Mubarak has used since 1981, when Islamic militants assassinated President Anwar Sadat.
"These are very positive steps," said Mohammed Kamal, a member of the powerful Policies Secretariat in the ruling party. "We don't expect 100 percent agreement on these amendments, but from our point of view, this is a step forward."
But government opponents have derided almost every aspect of the amendments -- from the ruling party's monopoly over their drafting, to the timing of the referendum so soon after their approval in parliament, to their impact on Egypt's political life.
Much of the criticism has been leveled at provisions that grant police broad powers in terrorism cases, often broadly defined here, to monitor private communications, enter homes and refer suspects to military courts, whose verdicts cannot be appealed. They effectively institutionalize some powers Mubarak has used under the nearly 26-year-old state of emergency. Another provision curtails judicial oversight of elections by removing judges from polling stations. The judges' role became a focal point for government opponents last year, when two judges faced expulsion from the bench after calling for judicial independence and protesting fraud in parliamentary and presidential votes in 2005.
The amendments also mark another chapter in the government's long-standing campaign against the Brotherhood, whose members, serving as independents, represent the single largest opposition bloc in parliament. The amendments prohibit the formation of political parties based on religion.
While the Brotherhood is formally banned, the provisions would almost ensure it never receives recognition as a political party, however moderate. In addition, the amendments allow the president to dissolve parliament.
In contrast to past elections, there were few reports of violence. Only scattered protests were organized -- a far cry from 2005, when the Brotherhood and secular opposition grouped under the opposition umbrella group Kifaya, or Enough, were emboldened.
Since then, U.S. pressure for democratic change in Egypt has diminished markedly. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Friday called Egypt's lack of reform "disappointing." But two days later, on a visit to Egypt, she refrained from directly criticizing the amendments.
"The process of reform is one that is difficult," she said. "It's going to have its ups and downs."
In front of the Journalists' Syndicate on Monday, about 40 people crowded on the steps.
"The fraud is blatant," they chanted. "Come closer and hear what we say." But onlookers couldn't. Security forces clad in black stood two deep in front of them, urging pedestrians to move along. Street toughs in plain clothes loitered across the road. Around the corner were 10 police wagons.
"No one with a conscience should take part in this referendum," said George Ishaq, a leader of Kifaya, as he left the building in downtown Cairo. "The Egyptian people are showing with the absence their opinion of this vote."
Near Liberation Square, Karam Badr stood next to a kiosk stacked with newspapers. There was the government headline: "The Day of the People." Then the opposition version: "Even monkeys in the zoo know the referendum is forged."
"The people want to eat, drink and find work. That's all," Badr said. "What does it matter whether we vote or not?"
As he talked, a friend, Ibrahim Mohammed, approached with a smile and a warning: "They're going to take you away, and we'll never see you again."
Badr nodded his head in agreement. "Politics here is another way of saying detention."