- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 4, 2005

CAIRO — Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif yesterday downplayed any notion that his nation’s coming presidential election will be a hotly contested, Western-style campaign and said President Hosni Mubarak will be easily re-elected if, as expected, he decides to run.

In an interview in the ornate former palace where he has his offices, the prime minister sought to dampen rising expectations in the Western media about the September election, the first contested presidential race here in more than 50 years. He suggested that the opposition will not be prepared to run serious candidates until 2011 at the earliest.

However, this year will mark the beginning of a “revolution” in Egypt’s transition to a multiparty democracy, said Mr. Nazif, 52, who during 10 months in office has attracted Western notice for instituting major economic reforms, including deep income-tax cuts.

“I would like to see the political parties start developing themselves to present serious, viable candidates who can with time become political leaders of their own,” he said.

Mr. Nazif, who is going to Washington in two weeks to meet with President Bush and other U.S. officials, said he expects democratic institutions to develop over the next several elections.

Parliamentary balloting shortly after this year’s presidential contest will start the ball rolling, with opposition parties increasing their representation relative to the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP).

Over the five years until the following parliamentary elections, opposition parties will have the opportunity to develop credible national candidates for the presidential contest in 2011.

“Just before the [2011] presidential election you have another parliament election, which would be a very good test of whether they have succeeded or not,” Mr. Nazif said.

“We haven’t seen those political parties yet develop enough younger generation [leaders], and I think this is their main challenge. This is what they need to work on for 2011,” he said.

Mr. Mubarak, by contrast, brought in several new and younger ministers in a government shake-up in July that included his own appointment, Mr. Nazif said.

According to the prime minister, Egypt’s timetable for transforming itself from single-party rule to a multiparty democracy has been communicated to the Bush administration “in more than one way.”

“We are getting excellent, positive responses from the administration, encouraging us and saying to us, ‘You are doing a good job, both on the economic and on the political side,’” he said.

But he acknowledged that “there has been a little turbulence the last few months because of Ayman Nour,” the one announced candidate who plans to challenge Mr. Mubarak this fall.

Mr. Nour was released on bail in March after spending more than a month in prison on charges of forging signatures on a petition seeking official recognition for his new party, Al Ghad, or the Future Party. His imprisonment prompted Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to skip a planned visit to Egypt in March.

The arrest, Mr. Nazif said yesterday, was “an unfortunate event. I would have preferred that it had not happened in the first place.” But, he said, “It is not a political prosecution.”

Mr. Nazif dismissed Mr. Nour as “not a political heavyweight,” echoing what he and others are saying about a lack of “serious” presidential contenders. “No one knew him six months ago.”

“It’s easier when you talk about the United States. You know you have two strong political parties, so you know that you have at least two viable candidates to choose from,” Mr. Nazif said.

“Now this is not the case in a country that for a long time had a dominant political party in place and smaller parties just starting to find their way.”

Mr. Nazif also was dismissive about complaints in the media and elsewhere that government security forces have interfered with peaceful political rallies. Mr. Mubarak’s opponents have been free to hold meetings, with the police getting involved only when they feared there might be violence, he said.

Under Egypt’s existing constitution, parliament chooses a presidential candidate whose name is then submitted to the voters for a simple yes or no vote.

In February, the 77-year-old Mr. Mubarak surprised his country — and the rest of the world — by calling for a change in the constitution to allow opposing candidates onto the ballot.

“The problem … is that the time is too short. And the decision itself by the president to ask for that change was in many ways a surprise,” Mr. Nazif said.

“And in that sense I think the country wasn’t ready, and probably the opposition parties were not ready enough to present viable candidates for our presidential election in such a short period of time. So I think it is very important to look at this as a long-term process.”

The Egyptian legislature is expected to formulate new rules for presidential elections this month.

Mr. Nazif acknowledged that Mr. Bush’s push for worldwide democracy as detailed in his inaugural address in January was a factor in Mr. Mubarak’s thinking.

“President Bush has made democracy one of his main objectives and main goals, and has tied that very clearly to anti-terrorism, to stability and security,” the prime minister said.

“We take very seriously what he said, and he specifically pointed to Egypt as a country that can lead democracy in the region as it has led in the peace process with Israel. There is no difference on the objective. The problem is on how and who will do this.”

He made clear that Mr. Mubarak’s decision came “out of conviction. You can’t have economic reform without political reform; you can’t have political reform without economic reform. The two are tied together. Obviously, this is a global trend. There is a need to democratize, to open up across the board in Egypt.

“Having said that, we still think that political reform has to come from within. It cannot come because of exerted pressure. In fact, sometimes foreign exerted pressure, in this case, will have the opposite effect, and there are many examples of that.

“But I think that the important thing is that we are moving. We are moving on all fronts on the economic front, on the political front and on the social front.

“Look at the pressures from within. We had a number of public opinion polls that asked Egyptian citizens about their priorities. In all cases, the three most important things were, first, jobs, second, prices, third, government services, and not so distant fourth would be political reform.

“So I think that still the economic pressures within the country are much higher and much more challenging than the political side.”

Mr. Nazif acknowledged that some Egyptians will be unhappy if the lack of a competitive race leads to a fifth term for Mr. Mubarak, already in office for 24 years.

But, he said, “I think President Mubarak as a person has national acceptance. People will be angry because they want change, not because it’s President Mubarak.

“The reason for that is many Egyptians were in fact disturbed by the president’s announcement, not because they don’t want it, but because of the suddenness.

“The main question is, ‘Is the country ready for it?’ I’m sure that many Egyptians, given the time and given the opportunity, can become presidential material, but it’s a matter again of time.”

Meanwhile, on the streets on Cairo yesterday, thousands of supporters of the banned Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest Islamic group, protested across the country in an escalation of the opposition campaign demanding political reform. Police arrested hundreds of protesters.

More than 2,500 Muslim Brotherhood members and supporters demonstrated in front of a large downtown mosque, some waving copies of the Koran and chanting, “Reform is a religious necessity, reform is prophet’s way.” One of the banners read, “Freedom is a religious duty.”

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