Sat, 05 Mar 2005
From: Reuters

Egyptian opposition sees no changes from presidential vote

Tom Perry, Reuters/Cairo

An Egyptian opposition party on Friday said curbs on who can run in presidential elections proposed by Egypt's leader meant the vote would be little more than a single-candidate referendum in disguise.

President Hosni Mubarak, who has ruled Egypt since 1981, on Saturday proposed replacing Egypt's system of popular referendums on a single candidate selected in advance with a multi-candidate vote.

The United States, a close ally which has been calling for reform, said the decision was "very important".

But the Wafd Party said the requirement that candidates obtain the approval of elected councils would turn the multi-candidate vote into a "disguised referendum" because Mubarak's ruling party dominates all elected bodies, including parliament.

"The National Democratic Party holds the overwhelming majority today ... and its way of obtaining it is through forgery," the Wafd Party newspaper said on its front page.

Opposition groups accuse the ruling party of abusing state power to secure its overwhelming grip on parliament. The government says Egypt is a democracy.

Officials have said independent candidates wishing to stand in this year's presidential vote will need the endorsement of members of parliament and local councils dominated by Mubarak's ruling party.

Opposition parties will be able to field a candidate for this year's presidential poll without endorsement. But in future years elected councils will have to approve their candidates, officials have said. The level of endorsement required has yet to be determined.

That condition meant the ruling party would hold on to the presidency "forever", the Wafd said.

The Wafd was a powerful force in Egyptian politics early last century, but with other political parties was banned in the 1950s. Egypt allowed parties again in the 1970s, but like other opposition, the Wafd now has only a handful of seats.

Other opposition groups, including the banned Muslim Brotherhood, have dismissed the constitutional change proposed by Mubarak because of the curbs on who can run.

The Brotherhood, Egypt's most influential opposition group, says the restrictions will block it from fielding a candidate. Observers say Egypt could follow the pattern of Tunisia, which has multi-candidate elections but has been ruled by President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali since 1987.

Several Tunisian opposition parties said polls which secured Ben Ali 95 percent of the vote last year were unfair.

Egyptian opposition say Mubarak's proposal is of limited value while the government refuses to lift emergency laws in place since 1981 or curb presidential powers and the number of terms a president can serve.

Mubarak's proposal for a direct presidential vote took many by surprise and was more than the opposition had demanded this year. Commentators have said it makes it harder for the opposition to push for other reforms.

The ruling party's secretary-general this week warned against demands for further constitutional change.

While many are downbeat on the changes, Egyptian sociologist and civil rights campaigner Saadeddin Ibrahim this week said the direct presidential poll "may well be a giant step for democracy in Egypt and the Arab world".

"The announcement is an important first step, one that the regime may assume it will be able to control to its own advantage, but which may not be that easy to contain once people begin to feel empowered," he wrote in the Wall Street Journal.

"The genie is out of the bottle," wrote Ibrahim, who wants to run for president as an independent.





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