Egypt Dials Back Political Reform ; Constitutional Amendments, Expected to Pass Monday, Will Bar the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's Most Popular Opposition Group

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Just under two years ago, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in Cairo, delivered her most stirring call for democracy in the Middle East and promised that the era of US support for dictatorships was over.

For 60 years, the US "pursued stability at the expense of democracy," she said, and had "achieved neither. Now, we are taking a different course." She stated that opposition groups "must be free to assemble, and to participate."

Yet today, the policy toward Egypt - which gets about $2 billion a year in US aid - and other allies in the region looks much like those of the previous US administrations that Ms. Rice repudiated.

Back in Egypt on Sunday, a day before the regime of President Hosni Mubarak is expected to pass constitutional amendments that will bar the most popular opposition group from participation and reduce independent oversight of an electoral system riddled with fraud, Rice expressed disappointment, but indicated the US will do little in response.

"The process of reform ... is difficult. It's going to have its ups and downs,'' she told reporters. "It's not a matter to try to dictate to Egypt how this will unfold."

At the moment, what's unfolding is a major step back from President Mubarak's campaign promises to open up the system. Last week, the parliament that his ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) controls approved 34 amendments to Egypt's constitution and hastily scheduled a referendum on the changes for Monday.

Opponents say that the timing makes mounting an effective opposition impossible. The date was set by presidential decree.

Key changes include the removal of independent judicial oversight of elections in favor of an election monitoring commission that will be created along guidelines laid out later by parliament. The changes also ban any party organized around religion, a measure designed to bar the Muslim Brotherhood, the most popular opposition movement. Allies of the regime say that the measure will preserve the secular character of the state.

The motivation for the amendments, charges Rabab al-Mehdi, a professor at the American University in Cairo and a democracy activist, is to "facilitate the ascendancy of Gamal Mubarak to power and ... to curtail the potential rise of any strong confrontational opposition."

Gamal Mubarak is the president's son, and his meteoric rise in the NDP has led many Egyptians to presume that he is his father's preferred successor.

Analysts say that a number of factors have conspired to cause the US to back away from its former uncompromising democracy rhetoric: its urgent need to stabilize Iraq, the desire to drum up support to find a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, discomfort with the fact that most of the region's opposition movements have a strong Islamist tinge, and worries about containing Iran.

Meanwhile, regimes like Egypt's are making changes that amount to a more sophisticated version of the closed politics they've long enjoyed. …