Amendments to Egypt's constitution that human rights groups criticise as paving the way for a police state were approved by a majority of voters during a low turnout on referendum day on 26 March. Meanwhile, the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (HRinfo) and Human Rights Watch reported that bloggers, activists and reporters protesting against the referendum were assaulted and arrested.
HRinfo and seven other Egyptian NGOs, as well as Human Rights Watch, condemned the use of violence by security forces against voters. In Cairo, police assaulted, pepper-sprayed and arrested 13 bloggers and other political activists who were on their way to a sit-in against the referendum. Several foreign photojournalists had their equipment seized. A statement signed by the eight Egyptian human rights groups said the use of force allowed the government to get "enough room to forge the referendum."
Only a quarter of Egyptians turned out to vote in what many are calling a sham referendum, report IFEX?s Egyptian members and others. The controversial amendments, pushed to a public vote only a week after they were approved in parliament, were approved by 75.9 percent of those who voted in the referendum, government officials said. Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR) referendum monitors noted the poor turnout, and observed public employees being bussed into the polls, ballot cards being automatically marked in favour of the amendments, as well as pro-amendment banners inside polling stations.
The 34 amendments include sweeping security powers under a new anti-terrorism law, report HRinfo, Human Rights Watch and Freedom House. Article 179 gives authorities wide powers of arrest and surveillance - including the monitoring of communications - to combat terrorism, while bypassing the constitutional guarantees that protect basic freedoms. Activists such as the recently convicted blogger, Kareem Amer, could face greatly increased restrictions on their activities.
"These changes remove any question about the intentions of the Mubarak government to stifle independent voices in Egypt," said Freedom House.
Amnesty International has called the changes the biggest threat to Egyptian democracy since a state of emergency was declared after President Anwar Sadat was assassinated 26 years ago.
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