Egyptians have voted in low numbers to approve a referendum on constitutional reform.   According to Egypt?s Justice Minister Mandouh Marei, around 27 percent of eligible voters took part in the national referendum, which passed by more than three-quarters of the votes.   Tamara Coffman Wittes follows Egyptian developments at Washington?s Brookings Institution.  She says that the hastily arranged measure did not receive much advance notice to stir a large boycott or voter protest.         

?There was an effort by the opposition to organize a boycott, but quite frankly, having called the referendum less than a week after parliament passed the amendments, I wouldn?t be surprised that most Egyptians simply didn?t know it was taking place,? she said.

Passage of the 34 controversial proposals will allow the government of President Hosni Mubarak to try civilians in military courts and arrest and jail Egyptian citizens without warrants.  They would also outlaw the formation of any political party based on religion, in a move directed against the already banned Muslim Brotherhood.  Other provisions would weaken judicial oversight of elections and allow the president to dissolve parliament more easily.  Wittes says the restrictions normalize and make permanent the emergency measures that Egyptians have  lived with for the past 26 years.

?I think what?s really troubling about the security-related amendments in the constitution is that it takes certain prerogatives that were given to the security services under emergency law and it enshrines them in the constitution,? notes Wittes.

Passage of the referendum comes after a weekend of discussion in Aswan between US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, President Mubarak, and other Egyptian leaders.  Secretary Rice says she voiced American concerns about Egypt?s constitutional amendments, but after the meeting, Rice focused most of her comments to reporters on Egypt?s role in promoting Middle East peace.  Brookings researcher Wittes says the shift away from domestic issues reflects Washington?s hope of support from Cairo on delicate regional negotiations.

?I?m sure that the message is clear and understood.  I just think that President Mubarak isn?t compelled to pay attention to it under current circumstances.  I think his judgment is that the United States needs Egypt strategically for other regional goals and so would be willing to overlook these steps that he?s making to consolidate his power and his family?s power.  And unfortunately, I don?t think he?s gotten any evidence to the contrary from this administration,? she notes.