Mubarak moves to open way for son's succession

Egypt's long-serving president asked parliament Sunday to amend a constitution article that had been criticized as tailored to allow his son to succeed him. But reform advocates show little enthusiasm for that or other measures he outlined, glum that any will result in much change. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak told parliament that article 76 should be changed to make it easier for candidates from political parties to run for president, but did not provide details. Mubarak, 78, also dismissed speculation that he would step down before his term ends in 2011. "I will ask for a new amendment for article 76 to complete and achieve the goals of last year's amendment," Mubarak told the parliament in a speech marking the beginning of the new session. The opposition has demanded that the article be changed, claiming it opens the way for Gamal Mubarak, the president's youngest son, to become Egypt's next leader. Mubarak declared that the 2006/7 parliament session will witness "the biggest and widest range of constitutional amendments since 1980." Article 76 was rewritten last year to permit Egypt's first multicandidate presidential elections. But the opposition contends that it was changed in a way to make it impossible for anyone to compete against the ruling party in the next presidential elections in 2011. The article requires that independent candidates obtain 250 recommendations from members of parliament or city councils to be eligible for the race. Because most of those offices are held by members of Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party, or NDP, opposition activists believe the article will make it impossible for an independent to participate. The provision allowing opposition parties to put forward a candidate providing they have at least five percent of parliament's, effectively prevents them from participating as well because none achieved this in last year's legislative elections. Egypt's largest Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood, which holds nearly 20 percent of parliament, is unable to benefit from that requirement because it is officially banned. Gamal Mubarak, 42, has risen rapidly through the ranks of his father's party in recent years and is now deputy secretary general. Despite his denials, many believe he is being groomed to succeed Mubarak, who has held power for 25 years. But the president effectively dismissed speculation that he would step down, telling parliament instead that he intended to stay the course as head of state. "I will carry on with you, crossing to the future, shouldering the responsibility, as long as my heart is beating and I'm breathing," Mubarak said. "I won't waver or be shaken ... I don't accept any pressure and I kneel only before God." That statement suggests as well that Mubarak has no intention of ordering that the constitution be changed from allowing the president unlimited six-year terms to two terms. However he did mention an amendment that would reduce the powers of his office. Mubarak also said changes would be made to the constitution on the character of the Egypt's economy to highlight the commitment to free market policies as well alongside social justice. Egypt's constitution, issued in 1971, says that the country is socialist even though it began opening the market to the private investment in the mid-1970s and has pursued an extensive privatization program since the early 1990s. Political analysts say Mubarak's speech adds little to his earlier statements. "People don't expect anything new or serious from this government or this party and there is nothing new or serious from them. The only serious things are coming from the opposition forces - Islamists, secularists and the judiciary," said Osama el-Ghazali Harb, former NDP member and political scientist. "Mubarak's speech is a copy of his election campaign program," said Diaa Rashwan, another political scientist of the president's platform ahead of the September 2005 elections. "It was as though he hadn't heard people's objections to it."