(photo credit: AP [file])
Voters overwhelmingly approved a set of controversial amendments to Egypt's constitution, the government said Tuesday, a day after opposition groups massively boycotted a referendum.
Turnout in Monday's referendum was low - 27 percent - but the "yes" vote was 75.9 percent, Justice Minister Mamdouh Marei told a news conference broadcast live on state television.
Egyptians are likely to regard the figures with considerable skepticism as many polling stations were virtually deserted for hours in the capital, Cairo. The country's leading rights group, the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, estimated that only 2-3 percent of the electorate had voted five hours before polls closed.
"The Egyptian people confirmed their participation in deciding the future of the nation and the people's role in building the edifices of democracy," Marei said.
The 34 amendments abolish emergency laws, allow election supervision by an independent commission and ban political parties based on religion. President Hosni Mubarak said such changes would "give a new push to political party activity" and "stop the exploitation of religion and illegal political behavior."
But the opposition said the amendments would reduce the judicial checks on election fraud - a long time problem in Egypt - and strengthen the president's security powers at the expense of civil rights. The biggest opposition bloc, the Muslim Brotherhood, bitterly resented the ban on religion-based parties, an amendment that was clearly aimed at the group.
The United States pressed Mubarak, who has been in power since 1981, to enact pro-democratic reform in 2005, but subsequently eased pressure as it sought Egypt's support on Iraq and the Middle East peace process. But US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice did express concern this week that "all voices" had not been heard in the debate over the constitutional amendments.
Mubarak called the referendum exactly a week after the parliament approved the amendments, leaving many voters uninformed. One voter, house painter Hassan Abdel Salaam, spoke for many when he told The Associated Press on Monday: "I swear to God, I don't know what I'm voting for."
Justice Minister Marei said 9,701,833 people voted, or 27.1 percent of the country's 35,865,660 eligible voters.
But two local rights groups, the Hisham Mubarak Law Center and the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, accused the government of widespread stuffing of ballot boxes.
State factory workers were seen being bussed to a polling station in Helwan, south of Cairo.
In the previous referendum, in 2005, the state claimed a turnout of 54 percent of voters. But a report by the country's judges said this was grossly exaggerated and that polling in most stations in half of the country's provinces did not exceed 3 percent.