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Mubarak Endorses Multi-Party Elections

In a rare move, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has announced he will allow multi-party elections, enabling other candidates to run against him in the presidential election later this year.

Mubarak said in a televised speech on Saturday that he is proposing a constitutional amendment allowing this measure.

Under the current law, the Egyptian parliament, dominated by Mubarak’s party, nominates one candidate and Egyptians vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in a referendum. Mubarak has been president since 1981 and has been elected for four consecutive terms in this fashion.

Lacking an adequate rival, he was chosen to remain in power in every referendum by more than 90 percent of the voters.

The current measure was prompted by both internal and external pressure. Egyptian opposition groups and democracy activists have been pressuring the leadership to make the regime more liberal and democratic. The United States has been urging Egypt to show signs of substantive political reform.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice put off a planned visit to Egypt next week because officials said the U.S. was displeased with Egypt for jailing an Egyptian opposition figure last month.

Despite what seems a significant step forward in reforms, some opposition leaders claim the move is mainly cosmetic, serving to placate critics. Endorsement of a registered political party will be required for a candidate to run, but since many opposition activists and Islamists have not been granted permission to establish parties, they may not be able to participate.

The election in Egypt coincides with other political developments in the Middle East and at a time when many Arabs are approaching the ballot boxes for the first time in years. Palestinians voted in early January, followed by the Iraqis three weeks later. The Saudis recently carried out the first phase of their municipal elections.