Mubarak's most controversial speech
President Hosni Mubarak has promised more competitive presidential elections but also seen by critics as intending to remain in power for possibly yet another term, reports Gamal Essam El-Din
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President Mubarak's address, applauded by Gamal Mubarak and state dignitaries (right), to the combined session of the People's Assembly and Shura Council on Sunday
"The constitution as a whole cannot be a subject to change or amendment every few years," President Mubarak said in his keynote speech before a combined session of the People's Assembly and Shura Council on Sunday.
He went on to add, though, that the 2006/2007 parliamentary session would witness "the widest range of constitutional amendments since 1980". Although he did not enumerate the constitutional articles that would be amended, he did say Article 76 would be included in the package.
"I will submit a request to parliament to amend Article 76, as well as other articles, with the objective of securing a new round of political reform," he said. All of these amendments, he revealed, will be aimed at curtailing presidential prerogatives, reinforcing the supervisory role of parliament as well as the decision-making powers of the cabinet. A quota of seats for women in parliament would also be allocated, power decentralised to local councils, the electoral system revamped and anti-terror laws introduced. Yet other amendments, he said, would be in line with the economic reforms that have swept Egypt since 1980.
"There will also be changes to legislation regulating construction codes, real estate tax, teachers' salaries, economic courts and the civil service."
Although Mubarak's 40-minute speech was applauded at length by National Democratic Party MPs, it was greeted with scepticism by opposition groups.
Amr Hashem Rabie, an analyst with Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, found the speech frustratingly vague. "It was frustrating because Mubarak stuck to his position that the time for changing the constitution has not yet come."
The president, he added, still believes in what he calls gradual reform, largely, Rabie believes, because he is aware any meaningful overhaul of the constitution would involve a curtailing of the draconian powers of the office and restricting the number of terms a president can serve.
The speech, argued Hashem, contained only suggestions for cosmetic change. "The proposed amendment [curtailing presidential prerogatives] would make it obligatory for the president to consult with the prime minister and the parliamentary speaker before using any of his sweeping powers. But the prime minister and the speaker -- both NDP members -- would never say no to Mubarak."
And although, Rabie added, he said he will ask parliament to amend Article 76 to make it easier for parties to run in presidential elections, he emphasised at the same time that he hopes to stay in office for the rest of his life.
"I will continue with you on the path of crossing into the future, bearing the responsibility and burdens of it, as long as there is in my chest a heart that beats and I draw breath," Mubarak told his audience.
"As far as I understand," says Rabie, "this means that President Mubarak plans to contest the 2011 presidential elections, at which time he will be 83 years old."
The corollary of the president's intention, says Rabie, is that however Article 76 is amended it will remain impossible for any opposition or independent candidate to succeed.
Mubarak's hint that he aims to stay in office for as long as he is alive drew so much applause that he was obliged to repeat it again. The rapturous reception given to the announcement suggests, think analysts like Rabie, that even NDP MPs object to Mubarak's son, Gamal, inheriting power.
Muslim Brotherhood MP Hamdi Hassan has a different take on matters: "Mubarak's emphasis on staying in office as long as his heart beats only means he is seeking more time to engineer the appointment of his son as the next president," says Hassan.
NDP Secretary-General Safwat El-Sherif had indicated a week ago that Mubarak's request to parliament to discuss a raft of constitutional amendments was imminent.
"These articles could be discussed and approved by parliament before the end of April," said El-Sherif.
Such a timetable would mean the request has to be submitted next by early January at the latest.
NDP insiders expect that the amendments will cover from between 20 to 30 articles. The NDP's Policies Committee, led by Gamal Mubarak, was last week expanded to include Ramzi El-Shaer, an appointed MP and former president of Zagazig University's faculty of law, and Amal Othman, current chair of parliament's Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee.
In coordination with the People's Assembly and Shura Council's constitutional law professors, it is the NDP Policies Committee that will be entrusted with re-amending Article 76.
The expectation is that restrictions placed on opposition party candidates from running in presidential elections -- the support of five per cent of seats in each house -- will be eliminated, and those placed on independent candidates made less severe. Neither of which, Hassan points out, will enable the Muslim Brotherhood to field a candidate.
Mubarak also drew applause when he announced that Egypt was not "in need of anyone's authorisation to develop peaceful nuclear energy".
"I do not think he was directing any implicit criticisms at the US given most American officials say they support Egypt having nuclear power for peaceful purposes," says Rabie. Instead the message, he suggests, was a warning to Israel that it should not stand in the way of Egypt's nuclear ambitions.
The People's Assembly on Tuesday began debating the Industry Committee's 268-page report on the potentials of nuclear energy in Egypt, in which Israeli attempts to undermine any Arab nuclear project since the 50s are itemised. During the debate leftist MP Hamdin Sabahi warned against any plans to build a nuclear reactor in Sinai as a way of normalising relations with Israel.