March 20 and Egypt was on the brink of making major changes to its constitution. Despite vociferous opposition, the chamber was packed with government supporters and thrity-four new articles, which the ruling party called reforms, were overwhelmingly approved.
But not everyone was content – opposition Islamist deputies boycotted the proceedings as part of an on-going protest. They are critical of many of the changes which they say will replace the long standing emergency powers implemented back in 1981 after the assassination of President Anwar Sadat, with something even more authoritarian.
The current president, Hosni Mubarak has made some concessions towards democracy – back in 2005 he was re-elected for the fifth time, but for the first time via a direct vote. Other candidates were allowed to stand but with his main challenger only polling 8% compared to Mubarak’s 89% analysts saw the move as the Egyptian leader paying merely lip service.
But the treatment of opposition leader, Ayman Nour has brought widespread criticism. He was later tried and convicted on charges of electoral fraud – something which he firmly denies and critics claim were politically motivated… The new amendments will give even greater powers to the president and it is alleged prevent opponents from competing on an equal footing.
With the main opposition leader behind bars, some analysts say several of the amendements seem to be written to perpetuate the rule of Mubarak’s National Democratic party and the day when he can hand over leadership to his son Gamal Mubarak.
Although the US has continued to call for more democratic reforms Mubarak is aware that in these times of Middle East turmoil and the Iraq war, Washington needs the support of a secular government in the region. Mubarak is a friend in a hostile environment.
With the 34 amendments up for approval among the people less than a week after the parliamentary vote, Mubarak says the changes will regularise the country’s constitution, but human rights groups claim basic freedoms will be undermined.