President Hosni Mubarak has billed the changes as part of a reform package aimed at increasing democracy in the country he has ruled unchallenged for a quarter century.
But the opposition say the changes restrict judicial supervision of elections that they call vital to preventing vote fraud. The amendments also write permanently into the constitution strong security powers for the president they fear will be abused.
In a late evening session, ruling party lawmakers approved the amendments, a day earlier than expected. “With our blood and souls we sacrifice ourselves for you, Mubarak,” they cried, shaking their fists in the parliament chamber.
A spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, the biggest opposition bloc in the legislature, accused the government of passing the measures “in the night, like thieves.”
“There is a strange and worrisome insistence on passing the amendments as quickly as possible, which reveals the extent of the conspiracy against the people, ” Hamdi Hassan told The Associated Press. ”
Many critics see the changes as aimed at preserving the 78-year-old Mubarak’s control and smoothing the way for his son Gamal to succeed him in a future election.
Opponents also believe the amendments aim to ward off any election challenge from the Brotherhood, the Islamic fundamenalist group that is Egypt’s strongest opposition movement. The Brotherhood scored a surprise victory in parliament elections in late 2005, winning around a fifth of parliament’s 454 seats, showing their widespread popularity.
Two years ago, the United States had made reform in Egypt a cornerstone of its policy pushing for greater democracy in the Middle East. U.S. leaders publicly called for Mubarak to allow change in Egypt, where almost all levels of power are dominated by his ruling party or his military.
But public American pressure has falled nearly silent the past year, as Washington has sought Mubarak’s support in the Mideast’s numerous crises, including Iraq, Lebanon and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Egyptian opposition figures also believe Washington was worried by the strong Brotherhood showing in the elections.
The 34 amendments _ the biggest constitutional change since 1971 _ passed late Monday with a vote of 315 in favor, parliament speaker Fathi Sorour announced, live on Egyptian television.
Sorour did not announce the “no” votes. The Brotherhood’s Hassan said 113 voted against the amendments, including two members of the ruling National Democratic Party.
The amendments will now be put before a popular referendum, expected in late March or early April. The opposition has called for Egyptians to boycott the referendum.
Gihad Auda, a political scientist who sits on the ruling party’s policy-making commission, insisted the majority of Egyptians back the changes.
“I am sure that the silent majority will move when the time comes and approve the amendments,” he told Al-Jazeera television.
Abdel-Halim Qandil, a leader of the pro-reform Kifaya movement, said the government was “rushing to commit a political crime. … They are using the constitution like a tissue paper.”
“They are moving on to a greater crime, the son inheriting power from the father,” he told the Associated Press.
Late last year, Mubarak promised wide-ranging democratic reform in a nationally publicized speech, including a reduction in his powers in favor of the prime minister and an increasing role for political parties.
The opposition called for amendments such as ending the requirement of government approval to form a political party and a two-term limit for the president.
But the changes passed Monday are less sweeping _ and the opposition called them a setback.
_ One amendment bans the formation of any political party based on religion, ensuring the Brotherhood _ which is banned _ cannot become a party. Another amendment would require any candidate for president to come from a recognized political party holding at least three percent of the seats in parliament.
Brotherhood candidates run as independents in elections. Ruling party lawmakers have spoken of reforming parliament elections to run them by party slates rather than by individual candidates, which could reduce the Brotherhood’s presence in the legislature as well.
_ Another change creates an independent commission to monitor elections, a step the opposition says will reduce the role of judges in overseeing the vote. During the 2005 parliament elections, pro-reform judges blew the whistle on vote fraud that plagued the balloting. Critics doubt the new body will be truly independent.
_ An amendment replacing emergency laws in place since 1981 would empower the president to refer “any terrorist crime to any of the judiciary authorities stated in the constitution or the law.”
Opponents say that means the president can refer suspects to military courts, which have been widely used in the past but are sharply criticized by rights groups since their rulings cannot be appealed.
The rights group Amnesty International said the proposed reforms, particularly the anti-terrorism statute, will lead to the “greatest erosion of rights in 26 years.” Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit bluntly rejected the criticism, saying outsiders don’t have the right to “even express their opinion” on Egypt’s constitution.
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