Saturday, February 26, 2005

Egypt announces democratic reform

Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak has asked parliament to change the constitution to allow multiple candidates in presidential polls.

The surprise announcement followed US and domestic pressure for reform in the Arab world's most populous nation.

Mr Mubarak said the move was aimed at bringing the law "in line with this stage of our nation's history".

The proposal will be put to referendum before September's presidential poll.

Currently, Egypt holds presidential referendums on a single candidate approved by parliament.

Mr Mubarak's National Democratic Party has dominated the assembly since political parties were restored in the 1970s and he was expected to use the system to secure a fifth six-year term in September.

The US has been pressing for democratic reform in the Middle East, including in close allies such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Inside Egypt, there have been many calls recently by the opposition and civil society for political reform.

Opposition activists welcomed the announcement, though some were sceptical about President Mubarak's motives.

The Muslim Brotherhood, the influential but outlawed Islamic organisation, said it would consider putting up a candidate.

An official in the opposition Al-Wafd party, Mohamed Ulwan, said it was a historic step.

"For the first time since the days of the pharaohs, the Egyptian people will choose their ruler," he was quoted as saying by Reuters news agency.

But others were more cautious.

"What the president proposed today is a just a crack in the wall...This step is not enough," said Abdel-Halim Qandil, editor of an opposition newspaper.

He said President Mubarak should not be allowed to stand again.

"This morning I have asked the parliament and the Shura Council to amend Article 76 of the constitution, which deals with the election of the president to discuss it and suggest the appropriate amendment to be in line with this stage of our nation's history," Mr Mubarak said in his speech, carried live on state television.

He said he wanted "to give the opportunity to political parties to enter the presidential elections and provide guarantees that allow more than one candidate to be put forward to the presidency".

Meanwhile: A group of 22 men have broken up an Egyptian opposition party meeting in a Cairo hotel and assaulted at least three leading members of al-Ghad (Tomorrow) Party, a party official said.

Wail Nawara - assistant to jailed party leader Ayman Nur - said on Friday that he and Ihab al-Khuly, Nur's lawyer and the party assistant secretary-general, were attacked on Thursday evening.

The Interior Ministry media office referred questions about the incident to the office of the public prosecutor, which is closed on Fridays.

"Fifteen thugs in white training suits, accompanying seven men wearing plain civilian suits but armed with handguns, stormed the hall, interrupted the speaker and started insulting the panel," a statement from the party said.

"When Nawara attempted to ask them to be seated ... about 10 of the thugs attacked him, threw chairs, glasses and cups at him then got closer and started to beat him on the head, chest and back. They smashed his spectacles and attempted to strangle him with his own tie, then scarf," it added.

Police, who are posted at the door of every large Egyptian hotel, did not turn up to help for 60 minutes, Nawara claimed.