By SARAH EL DEEB
The Associated Press
Saturday, February 26, 2011; 8:04 PM
CAIRO -- A constitutional reform panel on Saturday recommended opening Egypt's presidential elections to competition and imposing a two-term limit on future presidents - a dramatic shift from a system that allowed the ousted Hosni Mubarak to rule for three decades.
The changes are among 10 proposed constitutional amendments that are to be put to a popular referendum later this year. The proposals appeared to address many of the demands of the reform movement that help lead the 18-day popular uprising that forced Mubarak to step down on Feb. 11.
But some Egyptians worry that the proposed changes don't go far enough to ensure a transition to democratic rule, and could allow the entrenched old guard to maintain its grip on power.
The most important of the eight-member panel's proposals would greatly loosen restrictions on who could run for president, opening the field to independents and candidates from small opposition parties. That marks a drastic change from the previous system that gave Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party a stranglehold on who could run.
"We were denied the right to have candidates before. Now they opened the door for whoever wants to run," said pro-reform Judge Ahmed Mekky. "This is a step forward."
A candidate would be allowed to run by doing one of three things: collecting 30,000 signatures from 15 of Egypt's 29 provinces; receiving the approval of at least 30 members of the elected parliament; or representing a party with at least one lawmaker in parliament.
The panel also recommended full judicial supervision of the electoral process, which would address regular criticism that the government routinely rigged past elections to ensure Mubarak's party retained its hold on power.
On Egypt's widely criticized emergency laws, which have been in place for 30 years and grant police sweeping powers of arrest, the panel proposed limiting their use to a six-month period with the approval of an elected parliament. Extending their use beyond that should be put to a public referendum, it said.
The recommendations did not directly address the law governing the formation of political parties - a process that previously was controlled by Mubarak's ruling party. Nor did they meet the demand of some protesters that the current constitution be simply scrapped and a new one created from scratch.
But the panel's chief, Tareq el-Bishri - considered one of Egypt's top legal minds - said the proposals "constitute a temporary constitution, after which a new constitution for the country can be drafted."
The suggestions were welcomed by some. Others dismissed them as patchwork changes to a faulty constitution that among other things gives unlimited powers to the president.
Islam Lotfi, a leading youth activist and a member of Egypt's most organized political movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, said the promise to rewrite the constitution responds to a major demand of the protesters.
But he called for the military to change the laws to scrap restrictions on forming political parties.
"Otherwise the military will fall prey one more time to the grip of the businessmen and the corrupt," he said.
Tahany el-Gibali, the deputy head of Egypt's Constitutional Court, said the amendments show a "serious shortcoming" in managing the transitional period by rushing toward elections without allowing new political players the time to form.
"This denies the new forces on the ground the right to organize and form new parties to run in those elections," el-Gibali said. "This will make the elections exclusive to the old powers," such as the Muslim Brotherhood and remnants of the old regime, particularly the businessmen.
The ruling military council, which took over from Mubarak, has said the military wants to hand power over to a new government and elected president within six months. It disbanded both houses of parliament and promised to repeal the emergency laws, though only when conditions permit.
Many Egyptians are growing impatient with the country's new military rulers to carry out promised reforms.
On Friday, tens of thousands rallied in Cairo's Tahrir Square to keep up the pressure on the military, pushing for the dismissal of the head of the caretaker government of Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq, who was appointed by Mubarak.
They are want a more active civilian role in the decisions made by the council. On Saturday, hundreds returned to the square. They were mainly protesting the beating of protesters the night before at the hands of the military police. The protesters were planning to camp outside the Cabinet to press for Shafiq's dismissal.
The overnight clash signaled a tougher line from Egypt's military rulers, who had avoided violently confronting anti-government protesters in the streets while promising to meet their demands for democratic reform and a return to civilian rule.
The military apologized Saturday and said the situation "wasn't intentional." In a statement, the ruling military council promised such confrontations would not happen again.