By Mohamed Abdellah

Plainclothes supporters of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak beat up activists protesting against a referendum on Wednesday on a presidential election system that sets tough conditions for opposition candidates.

Police said they had arrested 46 members of opposition groups in Cairo and the provinces, 25 of them in the Suez Canal town of Ismailia, including local party leaders who took part in a march against the referendum.

In central Cairo, riot police penned in dozens of members of the Kefaya (Enough) protest movement while men in plain clothes dragged some away by force, hitting them as they went.

The men, summoned by police officers, pushed prominent journalist and Muslim Brotherhood member Mohamed Abdel Qaddous to the ground, then kicked and punched him, witnesses said.

Prominent journalist Mohamed Gamal Fahmi received similar treatment, apparently to keep him away from the Kefaya group.

Essam Sultan, one of the witnesses, said: "I saw and heard one of the police generals give orders to the thugs, telling them to go and surround the Kefaya kids and hit them."

Opposition groups were campaigning for a boycott of Wednesday's referendum, saying the new system is little different from the old one of referendums on a single presidential candidate chosen in advance by parliament.

Some polling station officials said between 50 and 80 percent of registered voters had voted two or three hours before the stations close at 7 p.m. (1600 GMT).

But Reuters correspondents saw no queues at the stations they visited and only a trickle of voters.

From early morning, state television covered ministers voting and interviews with government supporters saying the referendum was a landmark for democracy.

Opposition groups say the restrictions will ensure Mubarak or another ruling party candidate wins the September elections.

Mubarak, 77 and in power since 1981, proposed the constitutional change in February under local and U.S. pressure. He has not said whether he will seek a fifth six-year term.

WOMEN MANHANDLED, CLOTHES TORN

"I saw a girl of 19 or 20 being pulled by the hair and being pulled along the pavement by an Interior Ministry officer. Then the riot police hit her with batons," Sultan said.

Kefaya supporter Mohamed Shafiq told reporters: "I was in Kefaya protesting ... suddenly I found myself surrounded by police. They started beating me with their fists."

Outside the Journalists Syndicate later, Mubarak supporters manhandled three women journalists, tearing their clothes and pulling the headscarf off one, witnesses said. One woman had blood on her face.

"About 200 supporters of the (ruling) National Democratic Party came, removed the Kefaya people from the steps, and anyone who came they thought was from Kefaya, they took and beat," said a syndicate security official, who asked not to be named.

The coordinator of the Kefaya Movement, George Ishak, told a news conference: "We were taken by surprise by a vicious police attack. They arrested people and injured them. They had no respect for journalists, youngsters, women or children. They attacked everyone with extreme violence."

In Ismailia, police detained the local leaders of four parties that have called for a boycott -- the liberal Wafd, the leftist Tagammu, the Islamist Labour and the Arab nationalist Nasserists, security sources said.

A crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, the influential Islamist group which the government does not recognize, continued. Six members were picked up in three Nile Delta provinces, the sources said.

The Brotherhood said on Tuesday 960 of its members had been detained -- more than at any time since the massive crackdown about a month before former President Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981.

Under the proposed amendment, recognized parties can field candidates in the coming elections, but in subsequent polls they must first win five percent of the seats in both houses of parliament -- a condition none of them currently meets.

Independents would need support from 65 of the 444 members of the lower house, which is 90 percent dominated by the NDP.

The Muslim Brotherhood, widely seen as the largest and most organized opposition force, says the tough conditions on independents aim to stop it fielding a candidate.

(Additional reporting by Edmund Blair and Amil Khan)


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