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Egyptian panel seeks more open elections, term limits

By Sarah El Deeb
Associated Press / February 27, 2011

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CAIRO — An Egyptian panel tasked with amending the country’s constitution recommended easing restrictions yesterday on who can run for president and imposing presidential term limits — two key demands of the popular uprising that pushed longtime President Hosni Mubarak from power.

The eight-member panel also suggested limits on the use of emergency laws — in place in Egypt for 30 years — to a six-month period with the approval of an elected Parliament. Extending the laws beyond that period should be put to a public referendum, the panel said.

The sweeping changes must still be put to a popular referendum to take effect, but they appear to address many of the demands of protesters who led the 18-day uprising that forced Mubarak to step down on Feb. 11 after more than 30 years in power. The military council has since been running Egypt’s affairs.

The legal panel was appointed last week to suggest constitutional amendments that would pave the way for democratic elections this year. The Armed Forces Council has said the military wants to hand power over to a new government with an elected president within six months.

But the protest movement has been growing impatient, and tens of thousands rallied in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on Friday to keep up the pressure on the military. In particular, protest leaders are demanding the dismissal of Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq, a Mubarak appointee. They are also calling for a more active civilian role in the decisions made by the council.

In all, the panel suggested 10 amendments to the constitution.

They included allowing for full judicial supervision of the electoral process, starting with preparing rosters, to declaring results — which practically denies the police ministry oversight. That would address regular criticism that past elections were rigged, ensuring Mubarak’s ruling party retained its grip on power.

In what would mark a major change in who can run for president, the panel suggested lifting restrictions on who can run, opening the door for independents and small opposition groups to field a candidate.

It said candidates are eligible to run if they can collect 30,000 signatures from different provinces in Egypt; or if they can get recommendations from 30 members of Parliament; or if their party has at least one seat in Parliament. Previously, Mubarak’s ruling party had control over who could run.

Yemen
Yemen’s embattled president suffered back-to-back blows yesterday: Hundreds of thousands called for his ouster in the largest antigovernment rallies yet, and two powerful chiefs from his own tribe abandoned him.

The huge turnout across Yemen and the defections were the latest signs that President Ali Abdullah Saleh may be losing his grip on the impoverished, conflict-ridden country.

Tens of thousands of members from both the Hashid tribe and Baqil, the second-largest tribal federation in Yemen, marched in Emran to demand the ouster of the president.

Saleh appeared to be hardening his stance, after initially offering protesters to engage in dialogue and promising that the security forces would not use force against them. Yemeni TV quoted him yesterday as telling army commanders that the armed forces will not hesitate to “defend the security of the nation as well as the unity, freedom, and democracy.’’

Large groups of protesters were reported yesterday in Yemen’s largest cities, including about 80,000 in the capital of Sana, about 150,000 in the city of Taiz, and 30,000 in Aden, according to security officials. Big rallies were also held in six other areas, including Emran.

Bahrain
Bahrain’s king ousted four Cabinet members yesterday as a prominent opposition leader returned from exile and urged the country’s rulers to back up reform promises with action. Thousands of demonstrators marched on government buildings in the capital calling on the prime minister to step down.

Two members of the royal family were among the replaced Cabinet members, a possible nod to protesters’ complaints that the ruling house of Al Khalifa holds too much control over state levers of power.

Bahrain’s prime minister — the king’s uncle, whose more than four decades in power have made him a focus of protesters’ calls for change — remains in his post.

Meanwhile, the return from self-imposed exile of Hassan Mushaima, a senior Shi’ite figure, could mark a new phase for an antigovernment movement in the tiny Persian Gulf nation that is a strategically important American ally.

Mushaima, who had been among a group of Shi’ite activists previously accused of plotting to overthrow Bahrain’s rulers, called on the government to be more responsive to protesters’ demands for far-reaching political reforms.

Algeria
Hundreds of demonstrators protested in Algeria’s capital yesterday to demand the ouster of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, but police were out in far larger numbers to counter them.

The protest on central Martyrs Square came two days after the government ended a 19-year state of emergency born of Algeria’s bloody Islamic insurgency. The move aimed to ease tensions after weeks of antigovernment strikes and protests.

The demonstration, led by a political opposition party, was far smaller than protests that have brought down autocrats in fellow North African countries of Tunisia or Egypt.

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