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Political Observers in Egypt Say Election Reform Only First Step

  • Greg LaMotte

Opposition leaders and political analysts in Egypt, say President Hosni Mubarak's call for a constitutional amendment to allow multiple candidates to compete in presidential elections is only a first step. They say other issues, including term limits for the presidency and greater freedom of speech must also be addressed.

Egypt has had one-party rule for more than half a century. But Saturday, President Hosni Mubarak announced the Egyptian constitution would be amended to allow more than one candidate to seek the presidency.

Under the current system, parliament chooses a single presidential candidate who is then approved or rejected by voters in a referendum.

The head of the Asian Studies department at Cairo University, Professor Mohammed el-Sayed Selim, an expert on Egyptian politics, says the announcement is a step in the right direction, but that there are other key issues that must also be resolved, including martial law, which has been imposed since 1981.

"It [martial law] constrains the ability of political parties to move, to campaign, to present political platforms and so on," said Professor Selim. "So, how would you run free elections under conditions of martial law? So, martial law has to be abolished or, at best, frozen during the presidential campaigning, so as to allow the free movement of political parties who will run in these elections."

Mr. Selim says the process by which political parties are allowed to form must also be amended because parties may only be formed with the permission of the ruling government. He says if the law remains unchanged that would be tantamount to allowing the ruling National Democratic Party to decide who will run against its candidate. President Mubarak is expected to be nominated for a fifth six-year term.

Egyptian political analyst and columnist Fahmy Howeidi welcomes the surprise announcement from President Mubarak, but says opposition parties will not have enough time to make their platforms known to the public. He also says the issue of freedom of speech needs to be addressed.

"We should have more freedom to give the parties an opportunity to prepare themselves, to discuss freely, in order to let people find alternatives, because, now, elections, without a free society, does not make any real democratic state," said Mr. Howeidi.

Mr. Howeidi says President Mubarak could easily win re-election in September, because he would be the only candidate familiar to the public.

But the secretary-general of the newly formed al-Ghad opposition party, Mona Makram Ebeid, says numerous issues need to be resolved for the elections to be seen as credible, but there is new hope for democracy in Egypt.

"We hope that this is the floor and not the ceiling, because this amendment, as much as it is acclaimed that it be linked with other amendments that should take place that have to do with lifting restrictions on social and political liberties, and many other demands that have been made by opposition parties, but, of course, this is a ray of hope, and we hope this will not stop at that," said Ms. Ebeid.

Other opposition leaders have said the issue of term limits for the presidency must also be debated.

Mr. Mubarak has been under increasing pressure from the opposition, and from the United States, to adopt reforms.