Egypt plans for democratic reforms

Mubarak calls for steps to allow for freer voting


CAIRO, Egypt - President Hosni Mubarak asked Egypt's parliament yesterday to amend the constitution to allow for direct, multiparty presidential elections later this year, for the first time in the nation's history.

On the face of it, the unexpected proposal from Mubarak, a former Air Force general who has ruled Egypt unchallenged since 1981, represents a drastic change in a country with a 50-year history of autocratic, 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 chose from with their own will," Mubarak said, speaking live on television before an audience at the University of Menoufiya in the Egyptian delta.

Some opposition politicians and other analysts praised 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 a mere appearance of democracy, a commonplace 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 historic elections in Iraq and among the Palestinians as well as the first limited nationwide municipal polls in Saudi Arabia, leaving the region bubbling with expectations for political reform.

Other analysts, however, sounded notes of doubt, pointing out that Egypt's parliament, dominated by the National Democrats, planned to take 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 racks up an overwhelming majority in each election.

Egypt's parliament has a long history of diluting reforms, critics pointed out, and may yet announce rules on candidacy that would create the aura of democracy while preventing any real change.

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