Egypt proposes term limits, competitive elections

Hundreds of thousands rally across Mideast; largest protests yet in Jordan and Bahrain; first reports of unrest in Saudi Arabia.

By OREN KESSLER, ASSOCIATED PRESS
February 27, 2011 00:38
Yemeni riot police charge towards protesters

yemen protests 311. (photo credit: AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

An Egyptian panel tasked with amending the country’s constitution recommended Saturday easing restrictions 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, and beyond that period only if approved by a public referendum.

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Protests continued throughout the region over the weekend, with hundreds of thousands of demonstrators hitting the streets in several countries to demand long-awaited political reform. The sweeping changes to the Egyptian constitution 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 popular uprising that forced Mubarak to step down on February 11. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has been running Egypt’s affairs since then.

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

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

In Bahrain, meanwhile, the king ousted four cabinet members Saturday 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 has made him a focus of protesters’ calls for change – remains in his post.

The return from self-imposed exile of Hassan Mushaima, a senior Shi’ite figure, could mark a new phase for an anti-government movement in the tiny Persian Gulf nation that is a strategically important American ally. He heads a Shi’ite group known as Haq, which is considered more hard-line than the main Shi’ite political bloc that has helped drive two weeks of protests.

He was embraced and kissed by a small group of supporters as he returned Saturday from several months of voluntary exile in London.

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.

“Dialogue ... is not enough. Promising is not enough. We have to see something on the ground,” he told reporters at the airport. Bahrain’s rulers “have promised before but they did not do anything for the nation of Bahrain,” he said.

Thousands of protesters carrying red-and-white national flags and chanting anti-government slogans marched Saturday from the landmark Pearl Square into the Bahraini capital’s government and business district. A few police units deployed near the state compound that includes the prime minister’s office watched as the crowd passed but did nothing to intervene. The rally came a day after Friday’s protests drew hundreds of thousands – an extraordinary turnout in a country of half a million and Bahrain’s largest demonstration yet.

Also Friday, the leader of Jordan’s largest opposition group, the Islamic Action Front, warned that the public was becoming “impatient with the slow and insufficient steps toward reforms.” The protest in Amman, the country’s capital, drew 4,000 people and was the largest outpouring yet in two months of unrest in the Hashemite kingdom.

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King Abdullah II, a key US ally in the Middle East, has so far failed to quiet the calls for sweeping political change that have hit his desert kingdom as unrest spirals throughout the region. The protesters’ key demands are for a bigger say in politics and for the prime minister to be chosen through elections, not by the king.

“Hurry up, hurry up, our government, the clock is ticking and people are eagerly waiting to see real and serious democratic reforms,” Hamza Mansour said to loud applause by protesters shouting the rallying cry of “Allahu akbar,” or “God is great.”

For eight consecutive Fridays, Jordanians have held street demonstrations to demand political change, lower food prices and the dissolution of a parliament they say was chosen on the foundation of a flawed electoral law. Parliament is the only elected body in Jordan’s national government. The king, who retains absolute powers, appoints and dismisses cabinets and has the authority to dissolve the parliament.

In neighboring Iraq, gunmen attacked the country’s largest oil refinery before dawn Saturday, killing a guard and forcing a shutdown that threatened to exacerbate acute electricity shortages that have prompted violent protests.

The gunmen detonated bombs that sparked a fire and forced the facility to halt operations, officials said. A few hours later, a small refinery in the south shut down after a technical failure sparked a fire in a storage unit, an official said.

One guard was killed and another wounded, an official said. He said about 45 soldiers have been brought in temporarily to protect the facility, and that technicians currently repairing the refinery estimated it would be back online later this week.

Iraqi Oil Ministry spokesman Assem Jihad said an investigation would be launched and that he hoped operations could resume shortly.

On Friday, thousands marched on government buildings and clashed with security forces in cities across Iraq in an outpouring of anger, the largest and most violent anti-government protests in the country since political unrest began spreading in the Arab world weeks ago.

The protests, billed as a “Day of Rage,” were fueled by anger over corruption, chronic unemployment and shoddy public services from the Shi’ite-dominated government.

Demonstrations continued Saturday in the northern city of Sulaimaniyah 260 kilometers northeast of Baghdad, where nearly 4,000 demonstrators took to the streets. Some protesters threw rocks at Kurdish security forces who threw them back and shot into the air to disperse people.

At least one person was shot and killed and three injured, said the head of the Sulaimaniyah Health Directorate Regald Hama Rasheed.

In Saudi Arabia, dozens of Shi’ites gathered Thursday night in Qatif, the main Shi’ite town in the eastern province, to demand the release of prisoners held for long periods without trial, Reuters reported Saturday, quoting resident Shi’ite sources.

There was no official confirmation of the demonstration, first reported by Shi’ite website Rasid.com. It said protesters had carried pictures of prisoners whose release they demanded.

Last week, Saudi authorities released three prisoners after Shi’ites in Qatif’s neighboring town Awwamiya staged a small protest, according to residents. If the reports are accurate, it would mark the first time the regional wave of protests had reached the Saudi kingdom.

Analysts say Saudi Arabia, the top OPEC exporter, would be worried if protests in Bahrain – where majority Shi’ites have been demonstrating against the Saudiallied Sunni government – spread to its Shi’ite minority who mostly live in the eastern province, the source of Saudi oil wealth.

In Algeria, hundreds of demonstrators protested in the capital on Saturday to demand the ouster of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika – but police were out in far larger numbers to counter the protesters.

The protest in central Martyrs Square comes 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 anti-government strikes and protests.

President Barack Obama praised that move as a step toward responding to public concerns. Algeria’s interior minister said protest marches in Algiers, the capital, are still banned.

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


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