Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
9 - 15 September 1999
Issue No. 446
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

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Petitions for change

By Amira Howeidy

Civil society is launching a campaign to drum up support for political and constitutional reform. At a Monday news conference at the offices of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR), representatives of the leftist Tagammu, Nasserist, liberal Wafd and Islamist-oriented Labour parties, as well as a number of leading intellectuals, addressed dozens of reporters to explain what their campaign is all about.

The speakers, who are members of the recently-formed Preparatory Committee for the Political and Constitutional Reform Conference, issued a statement last week making five basic demands "to liberate political activity from the constraints imposed on it". These were: lifting the state of emergency; providing safeguards for free elections; removing restrictions on forming political parties; allowing the establishment and ownership of newspapers and media channels and guaranteeing the independence of syndicates and civil society.

Contrary to figures released last week, which put the number of signatories at 300, the speakers said only 144 public figures have signed the statement so far "because many potential signatories are still away on their summer vacations". Leaders of the Wafd, Tagammu, Labour and Nasserist parties sent the statement to President Hosni Mubarak on 31 August, and it will be resubmitted once the committee gathers more signatures.

To publicise their demands, the committee is organising a public rally for 22 September and plans a second rally at the beginning of the year 2000.

The preparatory committee is actively working on raising grassroots support. Salah Eissa, a committee member and a prominent leftist writer, said that parallel to the committee's campaign to gather signatures in the provinces, the statement will be published in the opposition press and readers will be urged to sign in support of the call for reform. "We hope that this will be the largest petition in the history of Egypt," said Eissa.

"We are working on a long term [plan]," he explained, "and we are not in a hurry to see immediate changes and we don't expect our demands to be met overnight. This issue requires the mobilisation of public opinion."

The initiative is the first in many years to produce consensus among domestic political opinions and civil society. Although launched in advance of President Mubarak's fourth presidential term, the current campaign appears to be a sincere and serious effort. As observers note, the government itself is expressing a genuine will for political change.

Responding to comments suggesting that the campaign for reform would be fruitless, Magdi Qorqor of the Labour Party argued that "the government does indeed respond to pressure as it did when it repealed the 1995 press law... The scope of response depends on the pressure applied."

On Sunday, The Arab Programme for Human Rights Activists issued a separate call for reform to President Mubarak.

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