Egyptian officials say that earlier this week voters overwhelmingly approved 34 constitutional amendments in a referendum intended to increase democratic reform. However, opposition parties and human rights groups say those amendments threaten human rights, limit peaceful political activity, and strengthen the ruling party’s grip on power. The White House is voicing skepticism about the referendum because of major discrepancies between the Egyptian government’s estimates of voter turnout and those by independent observers.
When Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak promised his country democratic reform two years ago, Washington strongly encouraged that initiative and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice delivered an impassioned speech in Cairo underscoring the importance of democracy throughout the region, including Egypt. But, the new changes to the constitution allow civilians to be arrested and imprisoned without warrants and tried in military courts. They bar political parties based on religion, a move aimed at the Muslim Brotherhood. They reduce judicial oversight of elections and give the president power to dissolve Parliament more easily. And Amnesty International calls these constitutional changes the “greatest erosion of human rights in Egypt” in more than 25 years.
However, on Secretary Rice’s recent trip to Egypt, her criticism of the referendum was rather muted. VOA Cairo correspondent Challiss McDonough says that Washington is in a difficult position regarding “one of its staunchest long-term allies in the Middle East.”
Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA News Now’s International Press Club, Ms. McDonough explains that it is a “particularly delicate time in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process” and that Washington needs Egypt’s help in getting more Arab governments to promote stability in Iraq. In addition, Ron Kampeas, Washington bureau chief for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, notes the “reversal that democratization has brought to U.S. policy in the Middle East” – for example, the election of Hamas in the Palestinian territories, the election of “radical elements” in Iraq, and the “relative electoral success of Hezbollah” in Lebanon. Furthermore, there is concern that putting pressure on the Mubarak government might benefit, not liberal voices in Egypt, but the Muslim Brotherhood. Claude Selhani, international editor of United Press International, explains that Egypt – along with Jordan and Saudi Arabia – are “pro-U.S. in the fight against Iran” and against Tehran’s “proxy militias,” Hezbollah and Hamas. And these political realities limit the pressure that Washington is able to exert on the Egyptian government.
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