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>> The Jerusalem Post


by Orly Halpern In an unprecedented move towards political reform in Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak called Saturday for a constitutional amendment which would allow for multi-candidate elections. But the conditions imposed on potential candidates made it unlikely that Mubarak would have any competition in Egypt's September elections. The announcement came amid a sharp dispute with the United States over reform, particularly over the arrest of Ayman Nour, head of the opposition Al-Ghad party. The call also came two days after three members of the popular Al-Ghad opposition party were beaten up in a Cairo hotel. An Egyptian source told The Jerusalem Post that the attackers were "from the government." The proposed change to the Egyptian constitution will allow many candidates to run in the elections. Until now only one candidate could be chosen by the parliament, which is mainly filled with members of Mubarak's National Democratic Party. That candidate, who for the last four terms has been Mubarak, goes to a national referendum where citizens vote "yes" or "no." But an Egyptian source told the Post that the amendment will require approval from one-third of the 454-member parliament. That, he said, would be "very difficult" because of the majority of seats that Mubarak's NDP party holds. Another source close to the Ghad opposition party told the Post that "under the current circumstances, the amendment will be insignificant. It won't serve a purpose," he said. Political analyst Muhammad el-Sayed Said criticized Egypt's constitution as "obsolete, replete with gaps and contradictions," and said other articles in the document should also be changed. Nour ended a hunger strike on Saturday after Mubarak announced the proposal to allow multi-candidate presidential elections, his wife Gamila Ismail said. "Dr. Nour announced... that he had decided to end his hunger strike as soon as he heard of the amendment, which he described as an important step towards the party's and the Egyptian people's demand for extensive constitutional reform," she told Reuters. "He said he highly appreciated this step." Nour, a diabetic who began the hunger strike on Tuesday, was detained on January 29. His detention has been strongly criticized by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Rice has said she had raised "very strong concerns" about Nour's detention when she met the Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit in Washington and she put off a planned visit to Cairo. As the administration of US President George W. Bush has increased calls for democratic reform in the Mideast, Washington has seen friction with its crucial Arab ally. Nour, 40, was detained on allegations of forging nearly 2,000 signatures to secure a license for his party last year. He has denied the accusation. On Monday, he suffered a severe heart problem after six hours of interrogation by state security prosecutors. They refused to transfer Nour to a nearby hospital and instructed prison doctors to treat him. Ghad has only seven legislators in Egypt's 454-seat parliament but the detention of the populist politician has drawn wide attention, partly because Nour champions a call for more than one candidate to be allowed to run in this year's presidential elections. Describing the Thursday night attack on Ghad members at a political meeting in Giza, Wael Nawara, an assistant to Nour, told The Associated Press he was about to address a gathering at the Pyramisa Hotel when "about 10 to 15 men wearing track suits, who looked like state security agents, entered the hall, and started punching me." Nawara said the men seized his mobile phone and broke his glasses. "I sustained an injury to my head but not very deep," Nawara said. "They were hitting me to hurt me more than to wound me." He added the men also assaulted Sameh Atteya and Ihab el-Khouli, two lawyers who belong to Ghad. Nawara, 43, said the assailants did not stay long, but told him as they left, "We hope that you got the message." Police declined to comment on the incident, but a security officer at the Pyramisa confirmed the incident. Nawara said he was going to speak about the need for a constitutional amendment to allow multi-candidate elections for president. The meeting was hosted by a local human rights group. Egyptian and international human rights groups have called on Egypt to release Nour, saying his detention is politically motivated. The prosecutor general has denied this.

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