CAIRO, (Reuters) – Egypt said on Tuesday it will hold a referendum on March 26 on constitutional amendments billed by the government as reforms but regarded by opponents as an attempt to entrench the ruling party’s grip on power.
The amendments, which were pushed through parliament on Monday but must be approved in a popular vote, include an anti-terrorism clause that appears to enshrine sweeping police powers of arrest and surveillance in the constitution. “The referendum will take place on Monday, March 26, 2007,” Egypt’s cabinet said in a statement, citing a decree from President Hosni Mubarak.
The move to hold such a vote so soon after the amendments were passed in parliament infuriated opponents of the changes, some of whom have yet to announce if they will boycott or contest the referendum.
The Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s oldest and strongest opposition force, is likely to be hardest hit by the changes, which will prohibit political activity based on religion and appear to quash the group’s longstanding hopes for legal standing as a recognised political party.
“The new date of the coming referendum stunned all,” the Muslim Brotherhood’s deputy leader, Mohamed Habib, said in remarks published on the group’s website, www.ikhwanweb.com. “It aims at reducing the time available for the opposition to hold popular activities opposing the constitutional amendments.”
The changes would also allow the president to dissolve parliament unilaterally and would weaken judicial oversight of elections, which have been marred by complaints of widespread irregularities.
Hundreds of black-clad riot police and plainclothes security men deployed across downtown Cairo and barred cars and people from approaching the main gate of the Egyptian parliament to head off possible protests.
Mohamed al-Katatni, head of the Muslim Brotherhood’s parliamentary bloc, said the ruling party wanted to deny the opposition time to organise protests against the referendum. “The National Democratic Party fears confrontation on the streets,” he said.
Police broke up a protest of about 150 secular and Islamist opposition activists at the heart of downtown Cairo, and briefly detained six people, security sources said.
Elsewhere, about 30 activists from the anti-government Kefaya (Enough) movement protested in front of the journalists syndicate, scuffling briefly with police and chanting: “Down, down, Hosni Mubarak.”
Nearly 100 mainly Islamist lawmakers had boycotted the parliament vote, choosing instead to protest outside parliament with black banners opposing the changes. The Brotherhood said it would announce its position on the referendum shortly.
London-based Amnesty International has called the amendments “the greatest erosion of human rights” since emergency laws were put in place in 1981 after the killing of President Anwar Sadat.
Political analysts say Egypt wants to stop the Brotherhood, whose members won 88 of 454 parliament seats in 2005 running as independents, before the group makes more electoral gains that could help it eventually mount a serious political challenge.
Security forces arrested dozens of Brotherhood members in the days leading up to the parliament ballot, cranking up a three-month crackdown that has seen the group’s third-in-command Khairat el-Shatir arrested. He has been charged in military court, along with 39 others, with money laundering and terrorism. Around 270 Brotherhood members are now in detention.