- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif yesterday deflected the U.S. administration’s push for Egypt to move faster on political reform, focusing instead on President Bush’s praise for the changes that already have taken place in his country.

Mr. Nazif spoke with Mr. Bush in the White House yesterday, just days before Egypt’s national referendum Wednesday on whether to allow multiple candidates in presidential elections.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Mr. Bush praised Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s intention to hold a competitive vote in September, but also emphasized the importance of open campaigning by political parties and the presence of international election observers as part of the democratization process.

“It’s important that they move forward on the political reform … and the president emphasized the importance of free elections where you can have multiparties, and you can have full campaigning,” he said.

Mr. Nazif told reporters that Mr. Bush had welcomed Egypt’s reforms but also had urged the government to widen its political options.

“He commended us on the economic progress that took place in the country. He urged us to move ahead on the political reforms,” said Mr. Nazif, speaking through an interpreter.

“He commended President Mubarak’s … change of the constitution, and urged us to make sure that the elections will be free and fair,” he said.

The dynamic prime minister told The Washington Times during an interview in Cairo this month that Mr. Mubarak likely would win September’s vote, as opposition parties would not have had enough time to develop effective candidates.

Real change would take at least another several years, he said. “We haven’t seen those political parties yet develop enough younger generation [leaders]. … This is what they need to work on for 2011.”

Mr. Nazif dismissed complaints during the Cairo interview that government security forces were interfering with peaceful political rallies, and downplayed the arrest of potential opposition candidate Ayman Nour.

Egypt’s 77-year-old president has ruled the country since the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981. Mr. Mubarak has kept emergency powers in place since then, and his government has held a tight rein on any political opposition.

During Mr. Nazif’s visit, Egyptian police continued their roundup of members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood, which has been behind several pro-reform protests, the group said yesterday. Police have arrested 753 persons so far.

Opposition leaders have complained that the amendment under consideration is so full of restrictions that it will hobble any real political challenges.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Tuesday that the United States welcomed the announcement of multiparty elections, but added: “We think it’s important to take it all the way and make it really happen.”

He declined to comment on criticism of the Egyptian government’s moves so far. “We don’t sit here in judgment,” he said. “We sit here trying to move things forward … and support where we can efforts at real reform.”

Egypt is an important U.S. ally in the global war on terrorism as well as the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, but its role as a political leader in the Arab world over the years has been weakening, said Abdeslam Maghraoui, associate director of the United States Institute of Peace.

“We are unlikely to see any serious meaningful reform in the next three to four years,” said Mr. Maghraoui. “But at least economic reforms are taking place, so you could say that Egypt is moving forward.”

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