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Muslim Brotherhood plans Egypt political party

The Egyptian military orders a committee studying constitutional changes to come up with amendments in 10 days, indicating that fundamental changes to the system of government aren't anticipated.

February 16, 2011|By Timothy M. Phelps, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Cairo — The Muslim Brotherhood announced Tuesday that it would form a political party to run candidates for Egypt's parliament, while a committee of judges and legal scholars started work on amending the nation's constitution.

But the country's military rulers ordered the committee to complete work in less than two weeks, suggesting that constitutional changes in the short term would not be as extensive as many critics of the old system had hoped.

The Brotherhood, one of the oldest Islamic movements in the Middle East, has long been officially banned from Egyptian politics, though members have been allowed to run for parliament as independent candidates. Brotherhood followers had held 20% of the parliamentary seats until former President Hosni Mubarak's party swept widely criticized elections in November.

An open vote would be the first real test of the movement's influence. Mubarak used the Brotherhood, which calls for a peaceful transition to a government based on Islamic law, as an excuse to justify repressive emergency laws.

The Brotherhood will not run a candidate for president, according to a statement on its website. Mohsen Rady, a party leader, said that "the former tyranny of autocratic rule, which had once prevented the establishment of a party, will give way to immediate reform demonstrating a serious commitment to change, the granting of freedoms to all and the transition toward democracy."

Signaling that times really have changed since Mubarak left office last week, state television Tuesday aired an interview with senior Brotherhood leader Essam Erian.

But it became clear that fundamental constitutional change will have to wait at least until a new government is elected, as early as this summer. The military charged the eight-member committee, headed by moderate Islamist Tareq Bishri, with amending election provisions, considering the restoration of a limit on the number of terms a president can serve and examining the validity of military courts trying civilians.

Not on a list of changes to be considered as published Tuesday by the government newspaper Al Ahram was eliminating a provision that allows for the imposition of ongoing emergency laws, though a committee member said the panel was not necessarily limited by the military's suggestions.

The military abrogated the constitution after taking power Friday, raising hope in some quarters that there would not only be major changes in election laws but also a softening of the almost unlimited powers of the presidency and an end of the provision saying Islam is the national religion. The country has a significant Coptic Christian minority that often complains of discrimination.

But the committee was ordered to return its recommendations in just 10 days, a clear indication that broad reform is not immediately on the table and that the military is eager to return quickly to a legal framework for governing.

"They are balancing between not wanting to continue their lawless rule and wanting to make real change," said Ann Lesch, a political scientist at the American University in Cairo.

Lesch pointed out that many of the provisions the military wanted changed were items that Mubarak had already promised to amend just before he left power.

A powerful sandstorm and a national religious holiday Tuesday, meanwhile, quieted most of the labor protests in Cairo that have continued since Mubarak stepped down.

At Tahrir Square, the only signs of abnormality were military policemen taking a strong hand in directing traffic, unlike the usually ineffectual civilian police they replaced; a crowd circling a shrine to the "martyrs of the revolution," taking photographs of their pictures; and idealistic teenagers and young people sweeping up and painting.

On the promenade along the Nile, families and young people out enjoying the celebration of the anniversary of the prophet Muhammad's birth strolled by the heavily guarded Ministry of Information, which just four days before had been the scene of a tense confrontation between thousands of protesters and the army that ended only when Mubarak's resignation was announced.

Earlier Tuesday several hundred fired police officers gathered outside the Interior Ministry to demand their jobs be restored.

Egypt Air, the government airline, canceled numerous flights because of job actions and a lack of passengers, as tourism has dwindled to almost nothing at the peak of the Egyptian tourist season.

Banks were ordered to remain closed for the rest of the week.

tim.phelps@latimes.com

Amro Hassan of The Times' Cairo Bureau contributed to this report.

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