Africa Matters is a blog that follows the news and offers analysis of African affairs. Our aim is to delve deeper into the issues of African politics and development. We don’t presume to be experts, and we don’t presume to have all the answers—we are just trying to ask the right questions.

Tuesday, March 27

Egypt's referendum

Egypt held a referendum yesterday on 34 constitutional amendments. The changes, approved by the parliament last week, are ostensibly democratic reforms, but Amnesty International has labeled them "the most serious undermining of human rights safeguards in Egypt" since 1981, when a State of Emergency was declared following President Anwar Sadat's assassination.

Under the changes, police would have greater surveillance powers and the government would be able to try terrorism suspects in military courts. The president would be able to dissolve parliament unilaterally. Judges would no longer review election ballots. And only candidates from parties receiving over 3 percent of the vote would be represented in parliament. This would prevent parliamentary representation by the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's main opposition, which currently fields candidates as independents since the party is banned for its religious affiliation. The amendments may not change much in what is already a very authoritarian system, but they seem designed to ensure that the system survives the transition to President Mubarak's successor, who many see as his son Gamal.

So, Amnesty International calls this "the most serious undermining of human rights safeguards" since 1981. And the US? State Department spokesman Sean McCormack spoke of "mixed results" and urged consideration of the amendments in the context of Egypt's broader positive path towards democracy. In defending this claim, he cited the increased role of an independent judiciary in monitoring elections, failing to mention that one of the amendments would actually revoke this oversight.

Condoleezza Rice wasn't much stronger. On Saturday, at a meeting with Arab foreign ministers in Aswan, she conceded that "the Egyptians set certain expectations themselves about what this referendum would achieve and the hope that this would be a process that gave voice to all Egyptians. I think there's some danger that that hope is not going to be met." But after Egypt's Foreign Minister scolded her for butting into a domestic political affair, Rice spoke the next day of how "the process of reform is one that is difficult. It's going to have its ups and downs."

During a 2005 trip to Cairo, Rice criticized the Mubarak regime for its authoritarianism, prompting some minor but noticeable reforms. Egypt is the second-largest recipient of American foreign aid after Israel, and Washington has considerable clout in Cairo. But since 2005, Mubarak's support in salvaging America's security policy in the Middle East is now of far more concern than the potential to transform Egypt into a democratic example for the Middle East. And America's support for democracy in the region seems to have been tempered by the strength of Islamist movements from Hamas in Palestine and Hizbollah in Lebanon, to the Brotherhood in Egypt and the various forces in Iraq.

Concern over the Muslim Brotherhood coming to power is legitimate, but the authoritarian measures included in the amendments also target the only groups that are pushing for liberal, democratic reform, the country's human rights organizations, secular opposition parties, and judges. The United States is alienating these groups by refusing to pressure Mubarak. And if the Muslim Brotherhood does eventually come to power, which is certainly a possibility, it won't look any more kindly on the US for its current position.

Some of the 34 amendments in the constitution are genuine reforms including giving parliament more control over the budget and cabinet appointments; giving more power to regional councils; and removing legal impediments to introducing a women's quota in parliament. But the setbacks on human rights and the reinforcement of authoritarian rule render such changes largely meaningless.

The Muslim Brotherhood has called for a boycott of the referendum and turnout has been light. The government puts it at about 25 percent, other observers say more like five to seven percent. There seems to be little question of the outcome. A referendum has never failed in modern Egypt. As one opposition MP noted, "we are all simply actors in a play of democracy."

Also worth pointing out is that in justifying the new harsher counterterrorism powers, Egyptian officials have been pointing to the example of the United States.