- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 14, 2006

CAIRO — The Egyptian parliament yesterday postponed local elections for two years despite opposition from the United States and a leading fundamentalist group, a state-owned newspaper and lawmakers said.

President Hosni Mubarak issued a decree calling for the law last week, saying he needed the time to draft legislation giving municipalities more power.

“The law was approved by a majority, and the government succeeded in refuting the opposition’s objections,” the newspaper Al-Gomhuria reported in its early edition today.

A spokesman for the pro-Islamist organization Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammed Saeed el-Katatni, said the law was approved by 348 of parliament’s 454 lawmakers. It was passed by the Shura Council, parliament’s upper house, on Sunday.

“This is a sad day for Egypt. The dictatorship of majority again tried to exploit their numbers to prevent the voice of the people,” Mr. el-Katatni said.

The Brotherhood made a strong showing in legislative elections last year, and some saw the new law as an effort to block the group’s ascendance.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the Bush administration supports Egypt’s progress toward democracy but opposed Mr. Mubarak’s decision to put off local elections.

“We will be talking to them about this,” Mr. McCormack said yesterday. “As a matter of principle, we don’t support postponing of elections that have been scheduled.”

The council terms would have expired yesterday, requiring elections within 60 days.

The vote would have been on the heels of parliamentary elections late last year that resulted in surprise victories by the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt’s most powerful fundamentalist group increased its representation in the assembly from 15 to 88 seats.

Mr. Mubarak, a top ally of the United States, has come under pressure from Washington to increase democracy in a country where he has held near autocratic rule since 1981.

U.S. officials have expressed concern that his government is backing off the drive for reform. After praising Mr. Mubarak’s decision to hold the first multi-candidate presidential election in September, Washington sharply criticized the voting for parliament in November and December, when police and government supporters tried to prevent Brotherhood and other opposition voters from casting ballots.

Mr. Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP) still holds a 311-seat majority in parliament.

The difficulty facing U.S. efforts to bring reform in the Middle East has been highlighted by the Brotherhood gains in Egypt, and more dramatically by the landslide victory of the radical group Hamas in Palestinian parliamentary elections last month.

“After the victories of the Brotherhood in Egypt and Hamas in Palestine, the NDP is afraid of the pro-Islamist atmosphere,” Brotherhood legislator Essam Mukhtar said.

The Brotherhood is officially banned, and its candidates run as independents.

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