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Egyptian Leader Touts Laws to Be Passed

December 26, 2006

CAIRO, Egypt (AP) _ President Hosni Mubarak said Tuesday that laws to be passed in 2007 would improve democracy and abolish Egypt’s 25-year state of emergency, but rights activists said they doubted the long-serving leader would liberalize the country.

Laying out next year’s legislative agenda, Mubarak asked lawmakers to amend 34 articles in the Egyptian constitution to ``consecrate the people’s sovereignty as a source of power and give parliament more authority to monitor the government.″

``Today’s historic step opens the door wide for democracy and its practice,″ Mubarak said in a speech at his palace in Cairo. After he finished, the parliament met to consider his proposals.

A leading Egyptian rights activist, Hesham Kasem, was skeptical of the president’s pledge as he has promised greater democracy many times before during his 25 years in power.

``We have to go back to the gap between the regime’s actual practices and the demand for amendments,″ said Kasem, president of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights. Previous amendments were ``followed by theatrical debate while everything was already fixed.″

Domestic and international pressure for increased democracy grew on Egypt and other Arab countries after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Most of the changes outlined Tuesday were promised by Mubarak in his election campaign of 2005, but none came to parliament this year. It is thought the government reconsidered after the 2005 legislative elections, when the opposition Muslim Brotherhood did surprisingly well.

Opposition parties and political observers have long accused Mubarak, 78, and his National Democratic Party of rigging elections and using the emergency laws _ introduced after President Anwar Sadat’s assassination in 1981 _ to stifle dissent in Egypt. The emergency gives the government sweeping powers to detain suspects and restrict public gatherings.

``The security of the nation and its stability and the security of the citizens is my first responsibility and a red line that I will not allow anyone to cross,″ Mubarak said Tuesday. ``I asked last year to draft a law to combat terrorism to replace the current emergency law.″

He did not give a time for the passage of the new anti-terrorism law and the amendments, but the government-controlled newspaper Al-Akhbar reported Tuesday that parliament was expected to pass them within three months. Afterward, the amendments would go to a national referendum, the paper added.

Mubarak said the upper house of parliament would be revamped from a consultative body to one that vets new laws. He also said some presidential powers would be devolved to the parliament, but he did not say which.

Mubarak also said a certain number of places should be reserved for women in the 454-seat parliament, but he did not specify a figure. Five women now serve in Egypt’s parliament.

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