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Egypt's Controversial Referendum May be Boycotted

Egyptians go to the polls Wednesday to vote in a referendum that would change the constitution, allowing more than one candidate to run in future presidential elections. But, opposition parties have strongly criticized the measure, saying it will actually allow President Hosni Mubarak and his ruling party to remain in power indefinitely.

Egypt's three main opposition political parties and the banned Muslim Brotherhood organization have called for a boycott of Wednesday's referendum, which they describe as a farce.

The referendum would change Egypt's constitution to allow independents and some political factions to run in next September's presidential elections, but it sets tough conditions to get on the ballot.

Opposition leaders say the rules are so strict that no opposition candidate would be able to mount a serious challenge to President Mubarak.

Aboul Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood, says Egyptians have no choice but to boycott the vote. "It's an attempt by the National Democratic Party that governs Egypt to continue reigning despite the will of the people, and that's why we don't want it."

But, Egyptian officials have praised the referendum and upcoming presidential elections, saying both will advance the cause of democracy.

Over the past 24 years, Mr. Mubarak has been reelected as president four times in "yes-no" referendums. The Egyptian leader has not announced plans to run for a fifth term this September, but is widely expected to do so.

Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazief says the government is committed to holding a free and fair presidential vote. He says a boycott of the referendum would be a step backwards. "I don't think the democratic process would involve a boycott. Why don't you come and say "no" or come and say "yes." But come in and say what your opinion is."

The Egyptian prime minister last week met with President Bush in Washington. White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Mr. Bush believes the Egyptian referendum is a "historic initiative." "The president urges Egypt to continue moving ahead on the free elections that allow for full campaigning and international observers to be present," said the spokesman.

Egyptians opposing the referendum have held a series of protests over the past several days. The government has countered by arresting several members of the Muslim Brotherhood movement. Membership in the Brotherhood is widespread in Egypt--making it a strong opposition group. But the group has been outlawed, because the government says it is dangerously radical.