On March 19, Egypt's ruling National Democratic Party used its majority in the People's Assembly to approve amendments to the constitution, the effect of which will be to further discourage meaningful political reform in Egypt.
The amendments were subsequently approved in a national referendum on March 26, which the opposition boycotted, and was characterized by a low voter turnout (less than five percent according to the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights).
The Mubarak regime has several key motives for introducing the amendments. First, it is intent on politically restraining the Muslim Brotherhood, whose unexpected gains (20 percent of the seats in the People's Assembly) in the 2005 parliamentary elections set off alarm bells. The proposed constitutional amendments ban the pursuit of any political activity or the establishment of any political parties within any religious frame of reference. This ban prevents the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest opposition movement in Egypt, or any other political group that derives its programs from a religious orientation from establishing a legally recognized party. The amendments also pave the way for a change in the electoral system from a candidate-centered system to a mixed one that depends mostly on party lists, leaving only a small unspecified margin for independent seats. As an outlawed organization that is not allowed to form a political party, the Muslim Brotherhood has depended on the candidate-centered system for fielding candidates in parliamentary elections over the years. Decreasing the number of seats contested through this system would greatly minimize the Brotherhood's electoral chances.
A second motive of the regime is to create a new set of tools to control the electoral process and ensure its continued hegemony over Egypt's politics. The proposed amendments replace judicial oversight of the elections with oversight by a new supreme supervisory committee, whose membership includes -- but is not limited to -- current and former members of judicial bodies. This effectively overrules a Supreme Constitutional Court ruling in 2000 which stipulated that elections should have direct judicial oversight. Although repression and fraud persisted, judicial oversight of the elections resulted in a relatively more transparent electoral process, especially during the 2005 parliamentary elections.
Thirdly, the amendments give the executive authority, specifically the president and the security forces, unprecedented powers that run counter to constitutional guarantees for personal freedoms and individual rights. Under the banner of combating terrorism, the president is given the right to refer any suspect to exceptional, primarily military, courts. The security services can now carry out arrests, search homes, and conduct wiretaps without a warrant.
The regime's monopoly over political life in Egypt and the comfortable majority of the ruling National Democratic Party in the People's Assembly allowed it to pass the amendments without any serious consideration of the views of opposition parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood. In turn, the opposition is too vulnerable and divided to mount a serious challenge to Mr. Mubarak's authoritarian ruling style. Liberal and leftist parties -- which occupy less than five percent of the seats of the People's Assembly -- are dependent on the regime to ensure their survival and ward off the threat posed to by the Muslim Brotherhood, and thus have no choice but to accept the amendments.
Despite its recent electoral success, the Muslim Brotherhood -- Mubarak's real foe and the clear target of the proposed amendments -- is also restricted in its ability to respond. Over the last few months, the Brotherhood has been facing a serious security crackdown targeting the high ranking leaders and financial heads of the organization. This has clearly crippled the organization's ability to mobilize and pressure the regime. It faces constitutional amendments that severely hinder its chances for political participation and effectively foreclose the possibility of forming a political party with an Islamic frame of reference. Fearing further repression, the movement is unlikely to step up its criticism of the regime or the amendments.
The regime passed its undemocratic amendments at almost no immediate cost to its stability, but the future is less certain. As Monday's turnout showed, Egyptian citizens have become increasingly alienated from political life, and this week's amendments will only further exacerbate that situation.
On the same day as the Egyptian vote, the world saw quite a different picture in Northern Ireland, where two arch enemies -- nationalist Sinn Fein and loyalist Democratic Unionist Party -- agreed to share power. Polarized political situations worsen when politically successful grass roots organizations are deprived of a political voice and driven underground. The question is whether the Muslim Brotherhood will try to work within the new constitutional boundaries or explore more radical means of expressing its opposition.
Ironically one of the changes made on Monday by the Mubarak regime was to amend article one of the constitution to enshrine the concept of citizenship: "The Arab Republic of Egypt is a state with a democratic system that is based on citizenship." It would seem only for some.
Amr Hamzawy is senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.