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US skirts the issue of Egypt's constitutional referendum

CAIRO: The spokesperson for the US State Department has said that Egypt is undergoing a “process of political reform but offered no position regarding the upcoming referendum on constitutional amendments. “You have to put this in the wider context of political and economic reform in Egypt, McCormack said in response to questions about the speed …


CAIRO: The spokesperson for the US State Department has said that Egypt is undergoing a “process of political reform but offered no position regarding the upcoming referendum on constitutional amendments.

“You have to put this in the wider context of political and economic reform in Egypt, McCormack said in response to questions about the speed of the referendum process and concerns over new anti-terror, judicial and electoral laws included in the proposed constitutional amendments.

I don t want to offer at this point too detailed an explanation of our views, McCormack maintained.

I, quite frankly, don t want to insert the United States government in the middle of what should be a domestic political event in Egypt.

McCormack’s statements seemed to contrast with those of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice two years ago, who in a June 2005 speech at the American University in Cairo said “the fear of free choices can no longer justify the denial of liberty and that it was time to abandon the excuses that are made to avoid the hard work of democracy.

“For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region, here in the Middle East, and we achieved neither, Rice said.

“Now we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people.

In Cairo, US Embassy spokesman John Berry told The Daily Star Egypt that Ambassador Francis Ricciardone did not have a comment at this time and that “for whatever reason, we don’t have a statement yet coming out from Washington.

When asked if the US Embassy in Cairo could comment on the upcoming referendum, Berry said, “I don’t think we are [commenting].

Berry referred The Daily Star Egypt to the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs in Washington, DC, which in turn referred to McCormack’s statements Tuesday.

Washington’s public pressure on Cairo to speed up political reforms has subsided since 2005, as US dreams of sweeping democratization have met the realities of four years of war in Iraq and a new urgency to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Appealing to Cairo as a strategic ally in both conflict zones seems to have superseded talk of democracy, even as a domestic uproar to the amendments has highlighted suddenly linked secular and religious opposition. But, the US government seems to believe that democratic reforms are inevitable in Egypt.

“Overall, it is our view, however that a process of political reform has begun in Egypt, McCormack told reporters, “and that over the arc of time, when you are able to at some point look back at events in Egypt and the political changes underway there, you will see. a general trend towards greater political reform, greater political openness, a more direct correlation between. the roles and the needs and hopes of the Egyptian people and those whom they elect.

Nevertheless, Egypt’s opposition forces see the March 26 referendum as a monkey wrench designed by the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) to derail the democratic process.

Groups such as the Kefaya National Movement for Change and opposition political parties see the amendments as shoring up the ruling NDP’s 26-year hold on power.

On Sunday, more than 100 opposition lawmakers, mainly from the Muslim Brotherhood, walked out on a parliamentary debate on the constitutional amendments, because of proposals that include a ban on political organization based on religion and extensive new state security powers billed as “anti-terror.

Amnesty International has labeled the amendments the greatest erosion of human rights since reinstatement of emergency laws in 1981 after the assassination of President Anwar Sadat.

When pressed by reporters on “an antiterrorism clause that appears to enshrine sweeping police powers of arrest and surveillance in the constitution, McCormack answered, “I don t want to go into a point-by-point analysis here.

Asked if amendments that would allow the president to unilaterally dissolve parliament and would weaken judicial oversight of elections are affronts to freedom of political expression – which, in McCormack’s words were the US government’s prime concern – McCormack replied,

“You do fundamentally need to maintain the ability of people to freely express themselves in a system without fear of arrest or retribution; that is fundamental to any democracy.

But he seemed unaware of social realities in Egypt when he deflected questions about the speed with which the NDP has pushed through the amendments.

“One could argue the length of time [Egyptians] have to consider it, but also in the modern world today, it is certainly theoretically possible to obtain and analyze a large amount of information in a short period of time, McCormack said.

“The standard needs to be that people are able to inform themselves fully and then freely be able to express their opinions on what it is that they understand the amendments are.

According to UNICEF, about 30 percent of Egypt’s population of 74 million remains illiterate, while voting turnout in the 2005 presidential election was estimated around 20 percent of the electorate.

US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice is scheduled to arrive in Egypt on Sunday, March 25th to meet with President Hosni Mubarak and the so-called Arab Quartet in Aswan.

It is unclear whether she will address the upcoming referendum.

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