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Egypt Activists Say Real Reform Would Bar Mubarak From Race

By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 16, 2005; Page A19

CAIRO -- After digesting President Hosni Mubarak's proposal for multi-candidate elections this year, opposition groups say that it does not go far enough to ensure a competitive vote and that one way to ensure a real free-for-all campaign is for Mubarak not to run.

Although Mubarak proposed last month that the constitution be amended to allow a competitive race instead of a referendum on a single candidate, the details are still vague. Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party, which dominates the Egyptian legislature and local governments, has floated the possibility of allowing only officials of authorized political parties to run. Officials have also suggested a requirement that parliament and local councils approve nominees. Parliament is due to pass new election rules in May.


Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, right, met Tuesday with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus. They discussed Lebanon, a Mubarak aide said. (Sana -- AP)

Mubarak has yet to declare his candidacy, but party officials have indicated he will be the nominee. Mubarak has ruled Egypt for 24 years and would bring to any presidential race the vast advantages of incumbency: name recognition, access to news media and control of the government bureaucracy and police, opponents say.

"This is so far all just a big maneuver by Mubarak to avoid the missile of reform," said Mustafa Mazen, a member of Tomorrow, a recently authorized party that promotes democracy and free-market economics. Its leader, Ayman Nour, was arrested in January for allegedly forging documents needed to apply for official authorization. Nour, who was released Saturday on $1,800 bail, has said he intends to run for president.

Some opposition leaders have described Mubarak's announcement as a step toward instituting the kind of system used for many years in Tunisia, where a dominant party led by an autocrat is surrounded by small, tame and essentially decorative parties. President Zine Abidine Ben Ali, who has ruled Tunisia for 17 years, won 95 percent of the vote in last year's presidential election against three challengers.

"Mubarak must not run again," said Magdi Hussein, head of Egypt's Labor Party. "He is the problem, not the solution. We don't want the Tunisia model here."

"Mubarak's original proposal is far less than what the reform movement wants, and now conditions are being cooked up to make it completely meaningless," said Aida Seif Dawla, a human rights activist and member of a loose coalition of opposition forces called Kifaya, which is Arabic for "enough."

"It's another coronation of Mubarak," Dawla said.

Since Mubarak announced his reforms, organizers have staged two or three small anti-government rallies a week. Drawing 15 to 100 participants, the demonstrations have been dwarfed regionally by the massive rallies in Lebanon's capital, Beirut, for and against the presence of Syrian troops there.

A Labor Party protest last week in Cairo was typical. A clutch of 50 anti-government demonstrators paraded on a sidewalk near parliament. About 350 helmeted police officers, armed with truncheons, confined them to a 25-yard-long space between the Hegazi Cafeteria and the Sons of Omar fruit stand. Every once in a while, a protester would make a feint toward breaking through the police cordon. After minimal shoving, he would return to the confines of the sidewalk to shouts of "Down with Mubarak!" and "Freedom, where are you?"

Although the numbers are small, the anti-Mubarak tone of the rallies is a novelty for Egypt. The attention they garner on Arab satellite television and Western newspapers upsets government officials and some reformers who believe that Egypt will democratize at a pace best managed by the establishment.

Mubarak's decision has been under-appreciated, said Hala Mustafa, editor in chief of the Al-Ahram Democracy Review. It is closing the door to the politics of one-man rule that have characterized Egypt for almost 53 years, said Hala, whose publication is part of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, a government-backed research group. "The president wanted to give a signal of comprehensive reform. This was the first signal for the transitional period," she said.

Government officials note that, by implication, Mubarak's announcement ended the automatic accession of military leaders to Egypt's presidency. Mubarak and his predecessors, Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat, came from the military. This aspect of reform has not been emphasized because of a taboo on discussing the military's role in politics, officials said.

Mohammed Kamal, a university professor and a member of the ruling party's policies committee, said he expected the party to issue plans for further reforms as part of its election platform. The reforms would be designed to strengthen secular political parties while maintaining a prohibition on their religious counterparts, Kamal said.

By most accounts, the largest opposition group is the Muslim Brotherhood, which is banned from political activity but nonetheless maintains the largest base of popular support. "The goal is to enhance political parties and keep out religious-based parties that eventually would undermine democracy in Egypt," Kamal said.

Osama Baz, a veteran presidential adviser, cautioned that continued U.S. pressure would be counterproductive. "If people suspect this is American-inspired, they would resent it," he said. A gradual approach, Baz said, is necessary so that "society will learn the philosophy and concept of democracy."

Baz also predicted that reform would stop short of opening the door to parties built around Islam. "The Muslim Brotherhood would not win," he said, "but if they are let into the election, it would establish a principle."


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