Something "dangerous" is happening to public opinion in several Arab countries: It is beginning to chalk up more and more victories. Last week, the Lebanese public pushed Syria to announce its intention to withdraw from Lebanon. Last year, Saudi public opinion and American pressure generated a public discussion of human rights in the monarchy. And yesterday, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak laid the foundation for Egypt's democratic revolution, no less.
In a speech in his native district of Menoufia, Mubarak announced that he had instructed both parliamentary houses to discuss, that is to amend, clause 76 of the constitution, which determines the method of electing the president.
According to clause 76, the parliament presents the presidential candidate to a popular referendum. Only a candidate who obtains two-thirds of the parliament's votes can contend in the referendum, where the people can either approve or reject the candidate.
This effectively means that only a member of the ruling party can run for president. Mubarak has now proposed, for the first time, a series of amendments to enable free elections that will take effect before next September's elections and allow other candidates to run for senior office.
Mubarak, who has been in office since 1981, has succumbed to public pressure, which peaked this year when three public figures announced their intention to run for president. The Nasserist and leftist opposition also worked to arouse public opinion against an additional term for Mubarak.
The ruling National Democratic Party has said Mubarak's candidacy will be announced in May, and Mubarak has said that "a leader can't step down if his people want him." But the problem is not whether he is wanted but whether the people even have the chance to vote for someone else. This was also the question the U.S. administration posed to Egypt after the recent arrest of Ayman Nour, leader of the new "Tomorrow" party.
Egypt may be entering a new political era, with the new amendments, but there will still be a lot of work ahead regarding the status of parliament and freedom of action for political parties and the press.
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