Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Egypt Pushes 2-Year Delay in Local Vote

By MICHAEL SLACKMAN
The New York Times
February 14, 2006

CAIRO, Feb. 13 — President Hosni Mubarak has moved to postpone for two years local elections that were scheduled for April, turning away from a promise made during his recent presidential race to promote democratic practices, Egyptian analysts and political leaders said Monday. Thousands of local council positions were to be on the ballot.

The move, which raised some concerns in the American administration, was widely seen as an effort to preserve the governing National Democratic Party's monopoly on power at a time when its grip has begun to falter.

It was also seen as an effort to block the banned Muslim Brotherhood, which made unprecedented gains in recent parliamentary elections, from promoting an independent candidate for president in 2011.

Mr. Mubarak's allies in the upper house of Parliament and in his party said the planned postponement was, in fact, a step toward greater democracy because it would allow time to put in place a new law for greater decentralization.

"According to the current constitution, the local governments have no power and depend fully on the central government," said Muhammad Kamal, a leading member of the governing party's secretariat and a member of the upper house. "The concept is to move local councils more toward becoming local governments, rather than local administration. We want to empower decentralization."

Nasser Amin, director of the Arab Center for Independence of the Judiciary and the Legal Profession, a pro-democracy group based in Cairo, said, "The government is not ready now for the election, and they are not ready because they are afraid to be defeated or lose badly, like they did in the parliamentary election."

The president's decision, quietly approved Sunday by the upper house and expected to sail through the lower house, presents the United States with a difficult choice: criticize Mr. Mubarak and chance strengthening the Islamist opposition, or stay silent and fuel charges that the United States only supports democracy that promotes its own agenda.

While President Bush has identified spreading democracy as a cornerstone of his Middle East agenda, Egypt has demonstrated a reluctance to open up its political process.

But the United States has seen recent elections aid the rise of Islamists, including the recent victory by the militant group Hamas in Palestinian voting.

In addition, local political analysts said, the United States may be more inclined to hold its fire after the recent conflict over cartoons lampooning the Prophet Muhammad. The strong reactions to the cartoons may have further helped the region's Islamist parties.

In Washington, officials said they were troubled by Mr. Mubarak's action and called on Egypt to heed the wish of its citizens for democracy.

"We were concerned by the reports and are in touch with the Egyptian government to ascertain the facts," said Adam Ereli, deputy State Department spokesman.

Many people in Egypt, however, were quick to criticize the government's decision, insisting it was a betrayal of Mr. Mubarak's campaign promises and an attempt to hold down the Muslim Brotherhood.

"The obvious big picture is that many of the promises made by Mubarak throughout his campaign and his program for political reform have not come through," said Salama Ahmed Salama, a political analyst and columnist for Egypt's most widely circulated daily newspaper, Al Ahram. "They are being delayed and there is no clear mechanism for carrying them out. All they are doing is postponing."

The Muslim Brotherhood, whose strength is in grass-roots support generated by the social services it provides, sharply criticized the plan, saying it was an attempt to ensure that the president's son, Gamal, does not face a strong challenger should he run in 2011. The younger Mr. Mubarak, 41, has not said if he will run, but was recently promoted to a leading role in the governing party.

"This is a step toward hereditary succession of the president's position," said Muhammad Habib, the deputy leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

Parliamentary elections last year demonstrated that the secular political parties were weak, and that the governing party was losing support, leaving the banned Brotherhood as the only organized opposition able to generate votes.

The Muslim Brotherhood cannot field a candidate for president in the party's name, even though it controls 88 of 454 seats in Parliament, enough to do so under the law. It is disallowed because it has been banned as a result of violent activities decades ago, and because it is a religious organization.

Under the new law, however, it could support an independent candidate under a complex formula that would be aided if the Brotherhood controlled local councils as well as its seats in Parliament. The councils handle matters like building schools and providing water.

Mr. Kamal, of the governing party, said the delay would not undermine the Brotherhood's political prospects, though others pointed out it would give the governing party time to regroup after the parliamentary elections last year.

The president's spokesman, Souleiman Awad, said, "This is part of the attempt to decentralize the government," and added that it is "part of the reform President Mubarak promised."

But even within the governing party, the argument that postponing a vote by two years was about democratic reform ran into skepticism.

"Of course it's because of the Muslim Brotherhood," said Osama el-Ghazali Harb, a party member and political analyst at the government-financed Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. "The last parliamentary elections proved that the N.D.P is much weaker than anyone predicted; all the other parties are disappointing beyond imagination. The only alternative that is capable of filling the vacuum and of challenging the N.D.P. is the Muslim Brotherhood."

Local elections have not traditionally been hotly contested. But a change in the Constitution last year, which opened the way for multi-candidate elections for president, gave local councils some power over the ability of independent candidates to run for president of the nation.

Even if the brotherhood did not manage to field a candidate for president, controlling local councils would be a way to spread its influence and build its support.

"These all are attempts to protect the weak party against other political powers," said George Ishaq, a spokesman and a founding member of Kifaya, a secular pro-democracy movement. "They are afraid of the Brothers and they are afraid of all potential political power. They are so weak that they put all other political powers under siege."

Mona el Naggar and Abeer Allam contributed reporting from Cairo for this article, and Steven R. Weisman from Washington.

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