Egypt's ruling party is scheduled to debate a series of reform initiatives at an annual conference that opens in Cairo Tuesday. Egyptian opposition groups are calling for constitutional amendments to change the way presidential elections are held, but National Democratic Party (NDP) officials officials say the conference will focus primarily on economic reform.

According to party sources and news reports, the conference will discuss legislative amendments to strengthen civil and women's rights, as well as economic and land reform issues.

Dr. Mohamed Abdel Moneim Saiid, director of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, says the proposed changes may make it easier to register new political parties.

"There are two things we are expecting from the NDP Conference," Dr. Saiid said. "One, a number of changes in the political system, related to party law, related to freedom of expression, related to syndicate and civil society formulations, and other things. The second thing we are expecting is more economic openness that's related to moving the economic system to a much more market-oriented system."

The conference, held under the slogan New Thinking and the Priorities of Reform, will be closely watched for indications of whether President Hosni Mubarak will run for a fifth term in a presidential referendum next year, or whether his 41-year-old son Gamal Mubarak, head of the ruling party's Policies Committee, is being groomed to take his place.

Opposition groups, human rights organizations and banned or unlicensed parties, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Communist party, are strongly opposed to such a scenario. They have united behind a statement calling for multi-candidate presidential elections next year, as well as an end to the country's 23-year-long state of emergency.

Emergency laws ban public demonstrations and allow for the confiscation of books and communications, for establishment of special state security courts, and for detainees to be held for an indefinite period of time, without charges.

Ahmad Saif, the director of the Hesham Mubarak Law Center, one of the members of the coalition of opposition groups, says state security forces prevented the groups from holding a news conference last week. He says the groups do not want Mr. Mubarak to serve another term, and do not want him to transfer power to his son.

"We want to send a message to the membership of the governing party, saying that we did not accept any plans you want to put to the future of this country, and we want true elections among different persons as candidates for [the] president's position," Mr. Saif said.

Gamal Mubarak told reporters last week that no constitutional amendments, which would be necessary, for example, to set presidential term limits, would be discussed at the party conference.

Most observers and participants agree that economic reform will be the conference's main focus.

Hossam Badrawi, a National Democratic Party member and head of the Parliamentary committee on education, predicts the new Cabinet of Prime Minister Ahmad Nazif will play a leading role.

"The new government group, related to investment and tourism, and the Minister of Finance, together with the Minister of Industry and Trade - I think, this group will be the focus of the conference for the time being," Mr. Badrawi said. "I believe some of the important reforms in taxes and customs and attracting investment will be coming out in this meeting."

A large number of foreign observers have been invited to attend, including members of the Washington-based Brookings Institution and the American Enterprise Institute.