(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Human rights groups criticise referendum

Human rights organisations in Egypt have reservations about the fairness of amendments to the country's constitution and consider they constitute a continuation of the violation of political and civil rights.

Earlier this year, Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, asked parliament to review article 76 of the constitution to allow, for the first time in Egypt, direct competitive presidential elections. Mubarak has ruled the country for nearly 25 years and the next general election is due in September.

In the past, the country has held a referendum every six years posing the question of whether or not Mubarak should continue as president.

Egyptians voted on 25 May in a referendum on proposed constitutional amendments and according to government statistics, some 83 percent of the poll was in favour of the proposed changes. There were no international observers in attendance at the ballot.

Opposition movements boycotted the referendum and demonstrated on the streets, saying the amendment imposed limitations on possible election candidates.

"These amendments cripple any candidate from nominating himself," director of the Hesham Mubarak Centre, a local human rights organisation, Ahmed Seif, told IRIN in Cairo.

Under the terms of the amendment, presidential candidates should be members of a political party that has been registered for at least five years. In addition, nominees need 250 signatures from members of the People's Assembly (lower house), Shura Council (Upper House) and local councils. Seif also had reservations over the manner in which the referendum was conducted.

"The way the question was posed put voters in a critical position as it limited the choice between having an amendment in the current form or keeping the constitution as it is," he explained. "What if people want an amendment but they don't want the proposed article?" Seif questioned.

According to Mahmoud Aly, director of the Egyptian Association for Democratic Transformation, the amendments constitute a limitation to free elections and not a regulation of them, as state officials claim.

He confirmed that in view of the current political environment in Egypt, opposition parties would never be able to acquire the minimum requirements for entering presidential elections.

"We all know that legislative elections in Egypt are corrupt and witness severe state intervention. I don't think that this situation will change anytime soon," he told IRIN.

He added that these amendments could be suitable if the political environment in Egypt was more democratic and transparent. However, he insisted that the minimum requirements for nomination were too difficult to acquire.

"Everyone should have the right to nominate his or herself. This right can be regulated by minimum conditions such as the age of the candidate. In light of this, the current amendment is a limitation and not a regulation," he added.

Fadi el-Qadi, Regional Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch (HRW) told IRIN that a referendum was not sufficient for real democratic transformation in Egypt.

"In my opinion, there should have been a serious and in-depth review for the whole electoral system," he said, adding that this was a violation of civil and political rights as there was an obvious intervention in the people's right to choose.

Additionally, Egypt has been governed under a state of emergency for more than 24 years with the exception of a few years as a result of wars and a period of militant unrest in the 1990s.

Mahmoud Aly insisted that the continuation of the emergency law in Egypt would hinder any real democratic transformation. Under the emergency law, civil and political rights are constantly being violated and the right to demonstrate and assemble peacefully is banned.

In addition, the law gives executive authorities complete power over all other bodies. The present government maintains, however, that it is still a necessary security measure.

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