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Egypt's Mubarak defends constitutional changes

By Jonathan Wright

24 March, 2007

CAIRO (Reuters) - Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak defended on Saturday two controversial aspects of constitutional amendments which will go to referendum on Monday, saying Egypt needed to avert the dangers of sectarianism and terrorism.

His foreign minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, earlier on Saturday dismissed U.S. criticism of the amendments, which human rights organisations and the main opposition groups have called a step away from freedom and democracy.

The amendments will enshrine in the constitution a ban on parties based on religion and will give the authorities wide powers of arrest, surveillance and trial in special courts.

Analysts say the main target is the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist movement which emerged as the country's largest opposition force in 2005 elections and which opposes any attempt to install Mubarak's son Gamal as the next president.

In a speech in the southern city of Assiut, Mubarak said the ban on religious parties was meant to prevent strife between Egyptian Muslims and the Christian minority, which accounts for about 10 percent of the population.

"I was aware of the constant attempts to cause divisions between the Muslims of the country and its Copts (Christians), wary of the sectarian and secessionist strife which countries dear to us have seen," he added, apparently referring to Iraq.

"I have learnt ... the dangers of mixing religion with politics and politics with religion. The constitutional amendments ... should prevent any trading in religion and attempts to strike at the unity of this country," he added.

The Muslim Brotherhood has tried to reassure the country's Copts that it would not make any changes in their status. It notes that Islam is already the religion of the state.

Mubarak said another aim of the constitutional changes was to stop political violence without recourse to the emergency law which has been in force since he took power in 1981.


"The security and stability of Egypt and the safety of its citizens are a red line which I have not allowed and will not allow anyone to cross," he said.

The rights group Amnesty International said on Friday the amendments would entrench practices of arbitrary arrest and detention, torture and unfair trials, and violate Egypt's international human rights obligations.

One of the amended articles says measures against terrorism will be exempt from restrictions on arbitrary detention and on the surveillance of communications.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is arriving in the south Egyptian town of Aswan later on Saturday for a meeting with Arab foreign ministers, said on Friday that she was concerned and disappointed by the changes.

But Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said: "Only the Egyptian people have the right to say their views on that referendum. ... If you are not (Egyptian), then thank you very much. It's our own development, our own country."

He was speaking at a news conference after U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had talks with Mubarak.

Rice said the United States had hoped that Egypt would be in the lead "as the Middle East moves towards greater openness and greater pluralism and greater democratisation".

"It's disappointing that this has not happened," she added.

A U.S. campaign for democracy in the Arab world peaked in about 2005 but analysts say the momentum diminished when the Bush administration realised it had serious problems in Iraq.

Aboul Gheit said: "Egypt and the United States are friends and we maintain the best of good relations. However, internal Egyptian affairs are an Egyptian affair and nobody else has the right to say anything."


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