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Military moves quickly to bring elections to Egypt

By Craig Whitlock and Kathy Lally
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 16, 2011; 12:00 AM

CAIRO - Egypt geared up Tuesday for a breakneck rush to democracy as its military rulers vowed to hand authority to an elected civilian government in six months and ordered legal experts to draft a revised constitution in 10 days.

The announcements are the latest signal that Egypt's generals are serious in their pledges to quickly transform the country and relinquish the power they seized when President Hosni Mubarak resigned last week after 18 days of street protests.

Mubarak's fall has ignited hopes for similar revolutions across the Middle East. On Tuesday, protesters clashed with government supporters in Yemen and Bahrain, suggesting that the pro-democracy fervor that began with an uprising in Tunisia and built to a boil in Egypt is continuing to spread.

Some democracy advocates, however, have questioned whether Egypt is moving too fast in implementing the demands of the protesters, noting that it first needs to set up credible political parties, voting laws and other basic campaign rules.

In announcing the transition plan, Egypt's Supreme Military Council opened the door to political participation by the Muslim Brotherhood, a fundamentalist movement that has long stirred unease in Washington because of its religious ideology.

The generals appointed a Brotherhood member to a panel of legal experts charged with rewriting the constitution. Meanwhile, the once-banned movement said it would form a political party for the first time to compete in legislative elections.

Mubarak regarded the Brotherhood as an enemy of the state and prohibited it from organizing a formal political wing during his nearly 30 years in power.

Although Egypt's military leadership has long treated the Brotherhood warily and considered it a threat to the secular establishment, the generals have indicated that they are coming to terms with the idea of the movement becoming active in politics.

The Brotherhood says it is committed to nonviolence and democratic principles, but many critics contend that the group's real intention is to work gradually to establish a government based on religious law. Officially, the U.S. government has long shunned the Brotherhood for that reason, although American officials have engaged in back-channel talks with Egyptian members of the movement over the years.

Cognizant of doubts about its intentions, the Brotherhood has pledged not to field a candidate in Egypt's next presidential election, saying it does not want to give the impression that it is seeking control of the country.

It is not clear precisely when that election will be held. The Supreme Military Council's statement Tuesday said it intends to hand over power within six months "to a civilian authority and a president elected in a peaceful and free manner that expresses the views of the people." The council, which is governing Egypt under martial law, did not specify a calendar for the elections.

Still, the Tuesday announcement marks the most specific indication yet of the military's intentions. Previously, the generals had said that they wanted to step aside in six months but had held out the possibility of ruling until elections could be staged at an indefinite date in the future.

In Washington, President Obama said he was pleased with the Egyptian military's commitments. "So far, at least, we're seeing the right signals coming out of Egypt," he said at a news conference. "Egypt's going to require help in building democratic institutions, for strengthening an economy that's taken a hit," he said.

Democracy advocates in Egypt, too, welcomed the announcements, as well as the news that the Brotherhood would not be excluded from the political process.

"For a long time, we have wanted this movement to be out in public for everyone to see who they are, how they work, in what ways they are structured," said Hafez Abu Seada, secretary general of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights. "How can you know if they are a secret organization?" he asked.

The constitutional review panel is led by Tarek al-Bishry, a retired judge. All eight members of the panel are considered top legal scholars, including Sobhi Saleh, the member affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, said Hossam Bahgat, executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

"And it's very important that the appointments were made not for political representation but as legal experts," he said.

The military's statement, which was distributed Tuesday by the Egyptian state news agency, said it wanted the panel to draft amendments to the constitution within 10 days, so that the proposals can be submitted two months from now to a popular vote.

Mubarak reshaped Egypt's constitution over the years so that it effectively prevented the opposition from organizing or individual candidates from challenging the president in an election. It also banned the existence of religious parties, hobbling the Muslim Brotherhood, which was founded in 1928.

But candidates affiliated with the movement were permitted to run for parliament as independent candidates in 2005. They captured about one-fifth of the seats, prompting Mubarak to crack down on the group.

Some pro-democracy groups have cautioned that Egypt will need many more months - or even years - to create parties and institutions necessary for credible and representative elections. Holding snap elections could give an advantage to the Brotherhood, which survived during the Mubarak years by developing a well-organized underground network of political cells and social-welfare groups.

Other analysts, however, have said that public support for the Brotherhood is limited and that it would be unlikely to achieve a majority in a new parliament. They also said that Egyptians are in no mood to wait for democracy and that it is important for the military to hand over power to a civilian government as soon as possible.

"This is a serious step toward a new era," said Abu Seada, the human rights activist. "This is good."

whitlockc@washpost.com lallyk@washpost.com

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