Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak says he is proposing a constitutional amendment to allow multiple candidates to compete in this year's presidential elections. Such an amendment is a key demand of the opposition and democracy activists.
In a speech televised Saturday morning, President Mubarak said he has asked parliament to change the constitution to allow more than one candidate to run in presidential elections.
Under current law, parliament, which is controlled by Mr. Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party, nominates one candidate, and Egyptians vote 'yes' or 'no' in a presidential referendum.
Mr. Mubarak, who has already served four six-year terms, has not announced his candidacy for a fifth term, but he is widely expected to be nominated by the ruling party.
Opposition groups have been pressing for constitutional and political reform that would allow multiple candidates, but also set presidential term limits and end the country's 24-year-long state of emergency.
Mohamed Kamal, a member of the ruling party's policy secretariat, says a constitutional amendment has been under consideration for some time.
"This is a very important article, and all the opposition parties demanded an amendment of this article," he said. "In a few months, we're going to have a presidential election. So, it was very important to amend this article now. Other articles are not as urgent as this article."
But Mohammad Sayyid Sayyid, deputy director of the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, and a strong proponent of political reform, says constitutional reform should be more comprehensive, and should be carried out in consultation with the opposition and other political parties.
"What we demand is not only competitive pluralistic elections, but we also have a whole range of demands for constitutional and political reform," he said. "So, I would hope that this surprise decision not be used to intercept or abort a wider range of reform packages."
U.S. officials have been putting pressure on Egypt to show signs of substantive political reform. President Bush called on Egypt to show the way toward democracy in the Middle East in his State of the Union address.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has postponed a trip to Egypt that was expected next week. A senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, says the trip was delayed because officials wanted to look at Egypt's actions on democratic change.
The United States recently expressed concern over the detention of Egyptian opposition leader Ayman Nour last month on fraud charges his supporters say are trumped-up.
Mr. Kamal, the ruling party official, says the constitutional amendment will be drafted and approved by parliament, and then voted on in a popular referendum. He says the process should take two to three months. Egypt's presidential election is scheduled for September.
Mr. Kamal says the endorsement of a registered political party will be required for a candidate to run. This means many opposition activists and Islamists, who have not been granted permission to establish parties, may not be able to participate.