ROME, Feb. 26 -- Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, under pressure at home and abroad to democratize, said Saturday that he would ask his country's parliament to change the constitution and permit multiparty popular elections.
"The election of a president will be through direct, secret balloting, giving the chance for political parties to run for the presidential elections and providing guarantees that allow more than one candidate for the people to choose among them with their own will," Mubarak said in a televised speech at Menoufia University in the Nile Delta.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has ruled for 24 years.
Mubarak, 76, said the decision was rooted in his "full conviction of the need to consolidate efforts for more freedom and democracy."
The surprise move could result in a historic shift for Egypt, which Mubarak has ruled for 24 years. He is nearing the end of his fourth term, and observers had expected him to seek another under Egypt's system, in which citizens vote "yes" or "no" on a single presidential candidate proposed by a parliament that is dominated by Mubarak's National Democratic Party.
Opposition demands for a competitive election have been building for months, while President Bush has made democratic reform in the Middle East one of his stated policy priorities.
Mubarak's speech followed a decision this week by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to cancel a visit to Egypt, a move attributed to the lack of reform initiatives there. Egypt had also jailed Ayman Nour, leader of a newly authorized political party and proponent of multi-candidate elections. The State Department criticized Nour's Jan. 29 arrest and suggested that Mubarak had no intention of loosening his hold on power.
The United States provides Egypt with about $2 billion in annual foreign aid. Bush has singled out Egypt along with Saudi Arabia as ripe for reform. In his State of the Union address, Bush said that "Egypt, which showed the way toward peace in the Middle East, can now show the way toward democracy in the Middle East."
Mubarak's announcement drew cautiously optimistic responses from opposition officials in Egypt. They pointed out that other steps would be needed to ensure a fair vote, including alterations in long-standing emergency rules that curtail political activity.
"It's the most important thing he has done in 24 years in power," Hisham Kassem, a member of the Tomorrow Party and editor of the Masr al-Youm newspaper, said in a telephone interview. "But there's plenty more to be done. You can't jail political leaders on false charges and hold so-called free elections."
Kassem said that Mubarak, who controls most news outlets and a vast government and security bureaucracy, should not be allowed to run again. The constitution provides for unlimited presidential terms. In past referendums, held every six years, Mubarak has claimed 90 percent or more of the vote.
"Mubarak has taken one boulder from the road to democracy. It's at least a change in mentality," said Refat Said, a member of the opposition National Progressive Unionist Party.
"What the president proposed today is a just a crack in the wall," said Abdel Halim Qandil, editor of the opposition al-Arabi newspaper.
Parliament began discussing the proposal Saturday, and Mohammed Kamal, a member of the ruling party's policy committee, said the amendment would be ready for approval in two weeks. "This is a change in the whole system," he said.
Fathi Sorour, speaker of Egypt's parliament and a member of the ruling party, told the government's Middle East News Agency that the measure would allow "any person to be nominated for the position of president under certain conditions."
Sorour said a candidate would need an unspecified number of votes in parliament to qualify. The exact number may be crucial. The ruling party controls 85 percent of the 454-member body; the biggest opposition bloc holds six seats.
Mubarak said he expected to hold a referendum on the constitutional change before the scheduled presidential vote in September.
In recent months, Mubarak had insisted that competitive elections were unnecessary and destabilizing for the country. In a speech Saturday in which he announced the change, however, he presented himself as heralding a new dawn in the Middle East's most populous country.
"If it happens," Mubarak said, "it would be the first time in the political history of Egypt that a chance is given to somebody, who is capable of shouldering the responsibility to protect the people's achievements and future security, to come forward. I took the reins of this initiative in order to start a new era."
Members of the university audience clapped and chanted "Long live Mubarak."
Opposition officials pointed out that Mubarak's proposals applied only to candidates of authorized political parties, meaning that representatives of banned groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood would not be permitted to run.