CAIRO (Reuters) â€” Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak asked parliament on Tuesday to amend the constitution to make it easier for opposition parties to field presidential candidates.
In a letter to parliament, read out by Speaker Fathi Sorour, Mubarak also proposed a formal ban on parties based on religion â€” a step which could enshrine in the constitution restrictions on the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest opposition force.
Other changes would give more power to the prime minister and the parliament, diluting to some extent the vast powers the president enjoys under the present 1971 constitution, which dates from the time of the late President Anwar Sadat.
But Mubarak set out his ideas only in the broadest terms and until parliament fills in the details, the practical effect of the changes will remain difficult to judge.
On the crucial question of presidential elections, which could decide who rules the Arab world’s most populous nation for the next few decades, Mubarak noted that none of the opposition parties could now meet the conditions for taking part.
Under a constitutional amendment approved last year, political parties can field presidential candidates only if they have won five per cent of the seats in both houses of parliament.
After last year’s parliamentary elections, only Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) meets that condition and, if presidential elections took place tomorrow, the NDP candidate would probably stand unopposed.
Opposition leaders say the arrangement is designed to ensure that Mubarak’s 42-year-old son Gamal would win the presidency if his father dies or retires in the next few years. Mubarak and his son say Gamal has no presidential ambitions.
Mubarak said: “My view is that the political parties, during this period of time only, should be allowed to nominate candidates for these elections under easier conditions.”
Religion, gender or origin
Mubarak did not mention at all the tough conditions on presidential campaigns by independent candidates â€” the only option open to the Muslim Brotherhood as long as the authorities refuse to let the Islamists form a party.
Independent candidates need the endorsement of at least 230 elected officials, including at least 10 members of the local councils in each of at least 14 provinces. The Brotherhood is very far from meeting those conditions.
The Brotherhood has 88 seats in the 454-seat parliament but the government says it is banned and restricts its activities.
Mubarak added: “I ask for an extra clause [in the constitution] with the objective of banning the practice of any political or party activity or setting up parties on the basis of religion, gender or origin.” The president also asked parliament to amend the article of the constitution which requires judicial supervision of elections â€” a constant bone of contention between the government and opposition during last year’s elections.
He said that the arrangements for supervision should make it possible to open more polling stations and ensure that all voting takes place on one day.
Egypt does not have enough bench judges to supervise all polling station on one day so the authorities have called in judiciary officials who are close in status to civil servants.