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Last Updated: Thursday, 30 December, 2004, 12:53 GMT
Wind of reform blows across Egypt
By Heba Saleh
BBC, Cairo

The Egyptian leader, Hosni Mubarak is nearing the end of his fourth term in office, and the expectation is that he will seek another six-year mandate.

Next October he will have been 24 years in the job, making him the longest-serving president in modern Egyptian history.

Hosni Mubarak
Mr Mubarak's government is also talking about reform
The ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) will almost certainly nominate Mr Mubarak as its candidate and Egyptians will be asked to ratify its choice in a referendum.

The current Egyptian constitution does not allow for direct presidential elections contested by more than one candidate.

But as the expiry of Mr Mubarak's term approaches, many in the Egyptian opposition and in civil society have been calling for amendments to the constitution.

Limits on president

In a country where public discussion of the president and his powers has been traditionally off-limits, activists are breaching a red line in ways that would have been unthinkable two years ago.

The government would pay a heavily political price if it clamps down on us
Ahmed Seif al-Islam
Human rights activist
They want to limit the president to two terms in office and to ensure that he is democratically chosen in a pluralist election.

Prompted partly by a concern that the president may be preparing his son, Gamal, to succeed him - something which Mr Mubarak denies - critics of the regime have become increasingly vocal in their calls for change to the system.

A few weeks ago hundreds of activists staged an unprecedented protest in Cairo to declare their opposition to a new term for Mr Mubarak.

Many placed over their mouths stickers saying "Enough".

Catchword reform

In October, 26 civil society groups launched a petition demanding constitutional reforms before the expiry of the president's mandate.

They continue to collect signatures, and say they will eventually present the document to parliament.

This challenge comes at a time when "reform" has become a catchword not only for the opposition, but also for the government.

With the United States launching repeated initiatives for reform in the Middle East, all governments in the region feel under pressure to declare a commitment to some kind of change.

"The government can clamp down on us," said human rights activist Ahmed Seif al-Islam.

"But it would pay a heavily political price because it is trying to send a message to the West saying that is carrying out reforms."

Popular exclusion

So far the protest movement remains limited to a small Cairo-based elite of intellectuals and activists.

"There is a widespread feeling in the country that this regime is autocratic and totalitarian," said Mohamed al-Sayed Said, the deputy director of the al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

"But the problem is that the popular mood is not reflected in any mass movement because the Egyptian people have been alienated from politics for a very long time."

The government has been able to brush off the calls for constitutional reform with relative ease.

It is unlikely there will be any changes soon, but the reform advocates say at least they have broken a taboo and made the issue a topic for public debate.




SEE ALSO:
Economic reformers rise in Egypt
14 Jul 04 |  Business
Egypt's Mubarak appoints new PM
10 Jul 04 |  Middle East
Mubarak denies succession reports
01 Jan 04 |  Middle East
Country profile: Egypt
09 Jul 04 |  Country profiles
Profile: Egypt's great survivor
24 Nov 03 |  Africa


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