A day before Egyptians are to vote in a controversial referendum on constitutional changes, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice says she told Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak about her concerns over the progress of democratic reform in Egypt.  VOA Correspondent Challiss McDonough reports from Cairo opponents of the Mubarak government say the proposed constitutional amendments would shrink protections on human rights and limit peaceful political activity.

Before leaving on her Middle East trip, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice said she was concerned and disappointed over Egypt's proposed constitutional amendments.  President Mubarak and his foreign minister responded sharply, saying it was an Egyptian matter that should be decided by Egyptians.

After meeting with the Egyptian leaders in Aswan, Rice toned down her criticism, focusing most of her comments on Egypt's key role in promoting Middle East peace and speaking only in general terms about Egypt's domestic issues.

"We have had a discussion," she said. "I have made my concerns known as well as my hopes for continued reform here in Egypt.  I think what I said is the process of reform is one that is difficult.  It is going to have its ups and downs, and we always discuss these things in a way that is respectful, mutually respectful, but I have made my concerns known and we have had a good discussion."

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit defended the constitutional changes, calling them necessary to ensure Egypt's security and stability. 

He said we hope that with the approval of these amendments, we will reach a stage that allows the Egyptian people more democracy and will pave the way to more in the future.

Critics say the amendments are actually a consolidation of the ruling party's control of the state, thinly disguised as political reforms.

International human rights groups and local activists have long criticized Egypt's restrictive Emergency Laws, which have been in effect as temporary measures for decades, renewed every few years.  Analysts say the proposed amendments would go even further than the Emergency Laws in eroding protection for human rights, and would make those provisions permanent. 

The group Amnesty International said the amendments will perpetuate existing abuses and the culture of impunity, and will also entrench them in the country's constitution.

Fadi Al-Qadi of Human Rights Watch said the Mubarak government is failing in its promises during the past two years to make changes that would benefit the Egyptian people.

"Those amendments put the larger and broader freedoms of all Egyptians - and we are not talking here about opposition and the government, or even one single segment of the society, we are talking about a broad risk of threat to the freedoms of general common Egyptians on the line over here," he said.

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

Although Rice has expressed her concerns about the provisions, human rights and opposition activists here consider the U.S. response to the proposed changes to be tepid at best, especially considering that only a few years ago the Bush administration was publicly pushing for more democratization in the region. 

Fadi Al-Qadi said Egypt should be moving toward a more free, open and democratic system, but instead is moving in the opposite direction.

"The sad part about it is that the American foreign policy does not see that as a threat," he said.  "On the contrary, I think and I believe that by blinding their eyes to what is going on in Egypt in that context, is basically supporting the Egyptian regime in its serious transformation into what people say is a police state."

In addition to concerns about the amendments, activists and opposition members have criticized the timing of the referendum.  The vote is being held only a week after Parliament approved the amendments, and they say few people will have had time to even read them. 

Most political opposition groups are calling for a boycott of Monday's vote.