Egyptian opposition boycotts parliament talks on constitutional amendments

Opposition lawmakers on Sunday boycotted the start of a parliamentary debate on constitutional amendments they say will further tighten Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's grip on power.
Mubarak is seeking a slate of 34 changes in the constitution, part of what his government calls a program of democratic and economic reform.
But the opposition has denounced the changes, saying they do not guarantee free elections and consecrate tough anti-terror powers for the president.
The changes come at a time that the United States, Mubarak's top ally, has reduced public pressure on Egypt to bring greater democracy. Two years ago, the Bush administration made reform in Egypt a top priority, but more recently it has spoken out less often, more concerned with winning Cairo's support in Mideast crises such as Iraq.
As parliament debated the amendments Sunday, more than 100 lawmakers from Egypt's largest Islamist opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, and other parties protested outside the building, wearing black sashes with the slogan, "No to the constitutional coup."
"We announce the death of personal freedom and free elections," read banners that they held.
Egyptian TV, which routinely airs parliament sessions, didn't broadcast Sunday's debate, apparently to avoid showing the empty seats of the boycotting opposition, which makes up about a quarter of the 454-seat Parliament.
"It's not worth it participating in this latest discussion or to later vote (on the amendments," an opposition statement read by the protesting lawmakers said. "No sensible or sincere person can say that its in the interest of people to declare Egypt as a constitutional police state."
One of the amendments would replace emergency laws in place since the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat, which give police wide powers to detain people and curb political activity.
Under the new proposed amendment, the constitution 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 anti-terrorism statute, will lead to the "greatest erosion of rights in 26 years."
The proposal will "enrich the long-standing system of abuse under Egypt's state of emergency powers and give the misuse of those powers a bogus legitimacy," Amnesty International said in a statement released Sunday.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit denounced the Amnesty statement, saying "Non-Egyptians have no right to comment or even voice an opinion in such an internal matter as a nation's constitution or its national laws."
The opposition says other amendments will restrict judicial monitoring of elections, which have long been plagued by vote rigging and violence.
In previous elections, the presence of judges at ballot boxes limited to some extent, and some reported vote rigging. One judge who complained about vote rigging in 2005 legislative elections, was put before an administrative court and reprimanded, and activists who protested in support of him were imprisoned.
The opposition says Mubarak is trying to pave the way for his son, Gamal, 43, to succeed him in the next presidential elections. Mubarak, 78, has been in power since 1981.
The legislature, dominated by Mubarak's governing party, was expected to pass the constitutional amendments later this week. The amendments will then be put to a referendum, which opposition parties are urging Egyptians to boycott.
Various activist groups staged small protests in downtown Cairo on Thursday against the reform amid massive police presence. About 30 demonstrators were arrested. By Saturday, they were all released.