Egyptians are voting in a hastily arranged referendum on 34 controversial constitutional amendments. The ruling party says the changes will help build democracy and fight terrorism, but critics say they threaten human rights and limit peaceful political activity. VOA Correspondent Challiss McDonough has more from Cairo.

The ruling National Democratic Party is portraying the 34 constitutional amendments as democratic reforms that will help the government fight terrorism. But critics say the changes are actually a consolidation of the ruling party's control of the state.

The proposed constitutional changes would allow civilians to be tried in military courts, and to be arrested and imprisoned without warrants. They would also bar any political party based on religion, a move aimed at the already-banned Muslim Brotherhood. One amendment would reduce judicial oversight of elections, and another would give the president the power to dissolve Parliament more easily.

The party's deputy leader for the city of Cairo, Gamal El-Saeed, said the amendments were designed to replace the long-criticized Emergency Law.

"The whole set of amendments is basically to modernize the Egyptian constitution," he explained. "Since 1971, Egypt has gone through a lot of social, economic, cultural changes if you will, which needs to modernize this constitution, which I think this will put Egypt in a whole new modern constitution, which helps in establishing a lot of modern new laws as well."

Local and international human rights groups have condemned the changes, and Amnesty International calls it the greatest erosion of human rights in Egypt in a quarter century.

Opposition parties said they felt the referendum would be rigged, and most of them are boycotting the vote.

VOA reporters were denied entry to several polling stations in the Imbaba neighborhood, but turnout in the city appeared extremely light. The busiest voting place visited by VOA had only a trickle of voters arriving, and several others appeared nearly empty, except for police and election officials.

VOA witnessed one suspicious incident of apparent mass voting at a polling station in Imbaba. A group of about 15 young men walked out of the building waving pink voter cards.

Several of them looked much too young to vote, although officials at the polling station swore they were all 18.

A burly man standing at the polling station tried to explain the presence of the large group by saying he had brought all of the workers from his factory to cast their ballots.

A few minutes later, a young opposition member, Abdel Rahman Hussein of the Tomorrow Party, approached.

He quietly said he had seen the group entering the voting station and had joined them. He said they had admitted to him that they had all voted more than once.

On a tiny MP3 player, he said he recorded his conversation with some of the men. He let VOA copy part of the recording.

Some of the men can be heard saying they had already voted three times. Hussein asks one man how many times he had voted, and the answer comes back five times.

Hussein's voice on the recording is clearly astonished as he repeats, five times "Oh, man!"

It is impossible to verify Hussein's account of the events or authenticate the recording, but VOA did see him emerge from the polling station at the same time as the group of men.

VOA tried to talk to the group, but other men at the polling station were gesturing wildly at them to leave. They were swiftly ushered down the street, where they jumped onto the back of a garbage truck and drove off.

About 10 minutes later, the same truck drove by again in the opposite direction.

The referendum was called only a week ago, after parliament approved the constitutional changes. The rushed timing has led to confusion and uncertainty among some voters.

Outside the same polling station, a man named Hassan rode his bicycle up to ask for help in figuring out what the election was all about.

"I do not know! I do not know what I am here to vote about or who I am supposed to vote for," he said. When asked why he was planning to vote if he did not know what the referendum was about, he said, "What if I stay home and they file a report against me? I do not want to get into trouble."

He then asked somewhat desperately, "Should I vote yes or no?"

In yet another area, a man named Mohammad Zoghby identified himself as a retired military officer and said he did not think the whole exercise was particularly democratic.

"I would have preferred it if they had listed each of the 34 items individually so I could say yes or no to each one of them," he said.

The National Democratic Party has mounted what it describes as a major get-out-the-vote campaign, but simultaneously downplayed expectations about the turnout, saying that the polling stations could only physically handle a turnout of up to 29 percent of the 36 million registered voters.

Outside a different polling station, Magda Mustafa and several other women employed at the Department of Agriculture said the National Democratic Party had come to their government workplace to hold what she called enlightenment sessions promoting the constitutional changes.

The night before the referendum, police in downtown Cairo broke up an attempted protest against the amendments, forcing the demonstrators to relocate to the steps of the press syndicate and arresting several people in the process. Two women were beaten up, and police confiscated cameras from several news photographers and deleted their pictures.