CAIRO — Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak called Saturday for a constitutional amendment to allow other candidates to run against him for the first time, a surprise move that could be a historic turning point in a country that has endured decades of repressive rule.
The announcement by Mubarak, a staunch U.S. ally, came a day after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice canceled a trip to the Middle East this week amid mounting tension over the autocratic Egyptian leader's crackdown on political opponents.
If the presidential race later this year unfolds as Mubarak described Saturday, it will represent a major shift, a stirring of political air significant not only to Egypt but in the broader Middle East, where a spate of elections and demonstrations has coincided with President Bush's calls for democratization.
Skeptical analysts said that the elections could fall short of expectations, a common phenomenon in a region that has heard much heady talk but seen very little serious political overhaul.
Noting that Egypt needed "more freedom and democracy," Mubarak said he'd sent a letter to lawmakers asking them to amend the constitution to open the presidential election to political competition. But the president, whose 23-year rule has never been opposed, was vague in describing who would be allowed to run for office.
Mubarak's televised speech from the Nile Delta province of Minufiya, where he grew up, jolted a nation that has repeatedly trekked to the polls to vote "yes" or "no" in referendums in which Mubarak was the only choice. The 76-year-old, Soviet-trained air force chief has been the president of Egypt since Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981.
This fall's vote would be carried out by direct, secret polling, Mubarak said. Political parties would be able to nominate candidates to vie for the presidency, and lawmakers should "provide guarantees that allow more than one candidate for the people to choose among them at their own will," he said.
In Washington, U.S. officials were encouraged by the speech but said the United States would watch to see how far-reaching Mubarak's reforms turned out to be.
"We'll see how much of a step it is, but it's certainly a step in the right direction," a senior State Department official said Saturday. The official called Mubarak's decision another sign that people in the Middle East took Bush's push for democracy seriously, "as well they should."
Egyptian elections, the official said, would "invoke people overseas to realize that if they keep working at it, they'll get somewhere. There are a lot of people in Egypt working on it."
After years in which his seemingly permanent hold on the presidency was seldom questioned out loud, Mubarak has been pelted with growing criticism. His tight grip on power has provoked demonstrations in the streets of Cairo and has drawn mounting calls for constitutional reform. Rumors that Mubarak's son, Gamal, was being groomed to succeed his father as president have intensified the anti-government grumblings of disgruntled Egyptians.
At the same time, the United States, Egypt's crucial ally and largest international donor, has shifted its tone, becoming more critical of Mubarak's iron-fisted regime. Bush rapped Egypt in his State of the Union address for failing to reform, and Rice reinforced that criticism last week with the cancellation of her trip.
Bush administration officials have not threatened, publicly or privately, to slash aid to Egypt. "Egypt is a very proud nation, and there's no point in humiliating them," said an administration official, who spoke under the condition of anonymity. "It would be counterproductive to do so."
The United States has prepared a $1-billion economic aid package aimed at revamping Egypt's deeply troubled banking sector. The package was ready Jan. 23, but it has not yet been signed. The administration has given no explanation for the delay.
"There were pressures building up to such a decision. The country is in crisis," said Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh, a senior leader in the Muslim Brotherhood, a popular party that has been officially banned in Egypt for decades but has joined the ranks of parliament by running its members as independents. "The regime moved wisely."
Among ordinary Arabs who have watched the upheaval unleashed by the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and bemoaned long-standing U.S. alliances with tyrannical Arab governments, U.S. calls to democratize the region have been received with a mix of skepticism and hope.
Despite widespread doubt over U.S. intentions, themes of democracy and reform are much on the minds of Arabs this year. Voters have gone to the polls in Iraq, the Palestinian territories and Saudi Arabia, and an unprecedented wave of popular protest has welled up in Lebanon against Syrian domination.
But many analysts view Egypt, the most populous Arab nation, as the true testing ground for whether democracy can take hold.