The Egyptian regime is attempting to silence any criticism directed against it by pushing through changes in the constitution. The US-backed president Hosni Mubarak is trying to dress up the changes as “democratic reforms”.
Mubarak has unveiled a series of constitutional amendments that would allow him to dissolve parliament, give free rein to suspend civil liberties and imprison anyone he deems to be a “terrorist threat”.
The changes would curb the powers of the judiciary to monitor electoral fraud, and ban the creation of any “religious” political parties. That measure is aimed at silencing MPs belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s main opposition.
The constitutional changes, which were put to a referendum on Monday of this week, sparked a wave of demonstrations and protests across the country. Opposition groups called for a boycott of the poll and denounced it as rigged.
An Egyptian newspaper published a memo circulated to all civil servants instructing them to vote “yes”. Another newspaper which openly campaigned for a no vote was promptly banned.
Last Sunday night, hundreds of supporters of the Kifaya (Enough) democracy movement tried to occupy Midan Tahrir, Cairo’s central square.
The activists were surrounded by security police after marching down one of the main boulevards. Many were arrested, while others were beaten up.
Egypt’s judges – who have become a focus for opposition to the regime – have called for a “black day” of mourning. Kifaya has called on Egyptians to dress in black and stage peaceful protests and strikes across the country.
On Monday of this week some 3,000 people staged a sit-in in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria.
The Muslim Brotherhood won substantial representation in parliament in the 2005 elections. The MPs, who had to stand as independents, have become a vocal opposition to Mubarak’s National Democratic Party.
MPs staged a walk out of parliament last month after details emerged of an Israeli massacre of Egyptian prisoners during the 1967 war. The massacre was ordered by Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, who is now Israel’s infrastructure minister. Mubarak has made an alliance with Israel central to his foreign policy.
The constitutional changes would allow the security forces to silence Egyptian bloggers, one of the main sources of information on the dictatorship. The government has moved to close down 21 websites that have criticised the regime or exposed torture.
A blogger who criticised the president was sentenced to four years in prison last month, while security forces have repeatedly attacked demonstrations – including a protest by poor people demanding compensation after they lost their homes in a fire.
As riot police tore into groups of demonstrators, US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice was in Egypt to rally “Arab moderates” – dictatorships such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – into an alliance against Iran.
The changes comes after a rash of successful wildcat strikes by tens of thousands of workers, and peasant rebellions over attempts to seize their land.
All this comes as delegates from the international anti-war movement were set to arrive in Egypt for this weekend’s Cairo Conference against imperialism.
Concern as Kifaya leader ‘disappears’
As Socialist Worker went to press many of the activists seized during last weekend’s democracy protests in Cairo (right) have been released.
There is, however, growing concern over the disappearance of George Ishak (above), a longstanding civil rights activist and a leading coordinator of the Kifaya movement.
Ishak went missing as he headed to the coastal city of Port Said on Sunday of last week. Egyptian human rights groups believe he has been abducted by security forces. They have described his disappearance as a “very dangerous development”.
Bloggers’ eyewitness reports
The renowned Egyptian blogger Hossam el-Hamalawy published an eyewitness report on the protests
‘Downtown cairo has come under occupation once again by Mubarak’s troops, plainclothes state security agents and battalions of plainclothes thugs which the interior ministry uses to “keep law and order”.
As groups started to assemble in Tahrir Square, police agents moved immediately to encircle them and push them away. They tried to convince the protesters to move to the Press Syndicate building.
We started moving in a group towards Talaat Harb Square, where we heard security wasn’t as heavily present. We moved slowly, pushed by security, thugs and soldiers.
There was a horrible pushing match back and forth. One of the plainclothes thugs kicked blogger Salma Said in her stomach. Other activists were also kicked and punched.
I managed to escape around 6.30pm and received a call to say there were 200 demonstrators in front of the Press Syndicate, chanting slogans against Mubarak.
There are unconfirmed reports that activists were assaulted by the police inside the building.’
For updates go to www.arabist.net/arabawy
To read Joel Beinin and Hossam el-Hamalawy’s account of the Egyptian strike wave, go to www.merip.org/mero/mero032507.html