February 27, 2005
Mubarak Pushes Egypt to Allow Freer Elections
By NEIL MacFARQUHAR
CAIRO, Feb. 26 - President Hosni Mubarak asked Egypt's Parliament on Saturday to amend the Constitution to allow for direct, multiparty presidential elections this year for the first time in the nation's history.
On the face of it, the unexpected proposal from Mr. Mubarak, a former Air Force general who has ruled Egypt unchallenged since 1981, represents a sea change in a country with a 50-year history of one-party governments.
"The president will be elected through direct, secret balloting, opening the opportunity for political parties to run in the presidential elections and providing guarantees that allow more than one candidate for the people to choose from with their own will," Mr. Mubarak said, speaking live on television before an audience at the University of Menoufiya in the Egyptian delta.
Some opposition politicians and other analysts hailed the proposal as heralding a new political era for Egypt, the Arab world's most populous nation, while skeptics said they wanted to await the details to be sure that the eventual constitutional amendment would not create only the appearance of democracy, a common problem in the region.
Proponents said the measure was the first, central step in reviewing Egypt's entire Constitution and answered both vocal domestic demands for increased democracy as well as stepped-up pressure from the Bush administration. The announcement also follows historical elections in Iraq and Palestine as well as the first limited nationwide municipal polls in Saudi Arabia, leaving the region bubbling with expectations for political reform.
While bringing democracy to the region has been a major theme for President Bush, the administration reacted with caution on Saturday, saying more details were needed to assess the step. [Page 4.]
In Egypt, Mohamed Kamal, a political science professor who serves on an advisory committee of the country's ruling party, called the move a major decision. "You are talking about the structure of the political system in Egypt," he said.
Other analysts, however, sounded notes of doubt, pointing out that Egypt's Parliament, dominated by the National Democratic Party, planned to take some two weeks to work out the details of the constitutional amendment. Other countries, like Tunisia, allow a few hand-picked opposition members to run, but the president gets virtually all the publicity and racks up an overwhelming majority in each election. Egypt's Parliament has a long history of diluting reforms, critics noted, and may yet announce rules on candidacy that would create the aura of democracy while preventing any real change. Also, the president only mentioned amending the constitutional article on how the president is chosen, No. 76, not No. 77, which provides for unlimited terms.
"This is a way to improve his image with the Americans and to please them with some formal changes," said Ibrahim Eissa, a columnist and political analyst. "While at the same time he is keeping everything else unchanged, like the emergency laws, imprisoning the opposition, the state controlling the media and political parties existing just on paper. This is deception."
Essam el-Eryan, a leader in the Muslim Brotherhood, a fundamentalist group that is banned as a party, noted that the revised amendment might limit the choice of candidates by barring those not endorsed by a legal political party.
The new secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, called off a trip to the region on Friday basically to protest the continued imprisonment of a jailed opposition leader that she had also criticized previously.
Ayman Nour, head of Al Ghad, a newly approved political party, was imprisoned on Jan. 29 on allegations of forging some 2,000 signatures to gain a license for his party last year. He denies the accusation, and government critics note that his continued detention seems to undermine the president's commitment to greater democracy.
"The only credible candidate against Mubarak is lying in prison on trumped up charges," said Hisham Qassim, a newspaper editor and vice president of Al Ghad. On Saturday, Mr. Nour's wife, Gamila Ismael, said he had called Mr. Mubarak's call for multiparty elections "an important step towards the party's and the Egyptian people's demand for extensive constitutional reform," Reuters reported.
Supporters of the measure called it an important step, believing it comes in response to marked internal changes in Egypt over the past few years, with growing anger over the political system. Even during the small street demonstrations permitted to express solidarity with the Palestinians, for example, demonstrators quickly changed to shouting slogans against the long rule of the 76-year-old president.
Over the past few months a tiny opposition movement has held a number of street demonstrations against President Mubarak, shouting "Enough!" - an unprecedented step here. At his annual meeting with intellectuals in January, virtually all of them spoke out about the need to amend the 1971 Constitution, which includes socialistic rules that now seem somewhat quaint, like reserving half the seats in Parliament for farmers and workers.
President Mubarak, who assumed office after President Anwar el-Sadat's assassination, has never faced an opponent during four referendums that allowed Egyptians to vote either yes or no on his continued rule. His announced tally was always more than 90 percent.
He was expected to stage a fifth such referendum in September, rejecting calls to amend the Constitution. Three political gadflies had announced plans to run as independents, but nobody took them seriously.
During his speech before the university audience on Saturday, the president said his proposal came from "my full conviction of the need to consolidate efforts for more freedom and democracy." The proposed change is expected to be put to a public referendum within nine weeks.
The old system had become something of an embarrassment. During speaking engagements around the country, Mr. Mubarak's son Gamal, 41, head of the governing political committee, faced pointed questions from students like whether he planned to run for president and, if he did, whether he would win with the same astonishing margins his father received.
There had been some speculation that the elder Mr. Mubarak might try to pave the way for a nationwide election that would see Gamal elected to succeed him, but the manner in which he proposed the changes on Saturday seemed to contradict that.
Rather than announcing that the changes emerged from the party's political committee, which Gamal Mubarak heads and which is ostensibly pushing for reform, President Mubarak chose the unusual step of announcing it in a dramatic speech from his hometown. That lent it the aura of a personal initiative rather than winning his son national points as a proponent for change.
Egyptian analysts were divided over the degree to which American pressure played a role in introducing the change. President Bush singled out Egypt, which receives some $2 billion in American aid annually, for its slow pace of reform during his State of the Union address.
"To promote peace and stability in the broader Middle East, the United States will work with our friends in the region to fight the common threat of terror, while we encourage a higher standard of freedom," President Bush said. "The great and proud nation of Egypt, which showed the way toward peace in the Middle East, can now show the way toward democracy in the Middle East."
Mona el-Naggar contributed reporting for this article.