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In Egypt, loyalists from President Hosni Mubarak's ruling party have approved changes to the country's constitution. Members of the opposition strongly objected to the amendments, and they walked out of parliament in protest. They say the changes will only increase the government's power to abuse human rights and to block legitimate political dissent.
NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Cairo.
Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)
PETER KENYON: The formal debate played out before an audience made up almost exclusively of ruling-party loyalists. Pro-government legislator Amal Ahman(ph) said the amendments were thoroughly debated and approved by the appropriate committees. She didn't need to add that those committees are dominated by government loyalists.
Opposition lawmakers, many carrying signs, mourning what they're calling the death of the constitution, made a weak effort to register their objections before they left the chamber in protest.
Member of parliament Zano Catitini(ph) was abruptly cut off as he argue that the changes appear design to enshrine the National Democratic Party in power forever.
Mr. ZANO CATITINI (Egyptian Parliament): (Foreign language spoken)
KENYON: We didn't find any improvement in this amendment worth mentioning he said. How can it be reform to eliminate judicial supervision of elections? Some of the amendments underscore the Egyptian regime's complicated stance toward the role of Islam in politics. On the one hand, liberal efforts to remove or modify the article stating that Islamic sharia law is the basis of all Egyptian law were defeated. On the other hand, the new constitution will completely ban political parties based on religion.
That will further isolate the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest opposition group, which is currently somewhat tolerated though technically illegal. Analyst Hala Mustafa, editor of the Al-Ahram Democracy Review, says the main disappointment was the huge gap between what the government said it was going to do with these constitutional amendments and what it's actually doing.
The reforms were billed, for instance, as a long overdue end to the emergency laws that Mubarak has governed under ever since he assumed power more than a quarter century ago, following the assassination of former president Anwar al-Sadat by Islamists. Mustafa says instead, the government is simply adding new powers to its old ones.
Ms. HALA MUSTAFA (Editor, Al-Ahram Democracy Review): It was presumed that a new article regarding combating terrorism will replace that emergency law. But as it ended, the emergency law won't be lifting, it will remain. And there is a real fear for this new article to violate the human rights or civil rights of individuals. Maybe it will add to the problem more than it will solve it.
KENYON: Independent and opposition Egyptian newspapers condemn the changes. One wrote that the next round of parliamentary and presidential elections is now fixed well in advance and the opposition might as well not bother to take part. While there's little chance of derailing the changes, Mustafa says once the details of the amendments become known, the ruling party may someday regret its heavy-handedness.
Ms. MUSTAFA: It denies the idea of reform, and I think it will discredit the ruling party itself, and it will isolate it in front of the public opinion and the other political forces in the societies.
KENYON: But for the moment, the Mubarak regime feels completely free of the outside pressure, led by the Bush administration, that once pushed it so vigorously toward reform. It was left to the group Amnesty International to issue a statement condemning these constitutional amendments. And Egypt's foreign minister quickly dismissed that as, quote, "foreign meddling in Egypt's internal affairs." Voters get to have their say on the changes in a referendum set for next Monday.
Critics say the vote is being rushed through to deny opponents of these amendments a chance to make their case to the public.
Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Cairo.
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