Egypt's military rulers back down on election law, but concerns persist

After thousands took to the streets of Cairo on Friday, Egypt's interim military council agreed to some electoral reforms. But the move has failed to allay concerns over how long the military will remain in power.

By , Correspondent

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    Egyptian demonstrators chant slogans as they attend a protest at Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt Friday. Several thousand Egyptians are protesting against the country's military rulers decision to retain the much hated emergency laws used throughout the reign of ousted President Hosni Mubarak to give police almost unquestionable powers to operate.
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Under fierce pressure from a range of political parties, Egypt’s interim military rulers agreed to meet some demands for electoral reform and laid out a tentative timeline for transition to civilian rule on Saturday.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) took over when former President Hosni Mubarak stepped down Feb. 11 after a massive wave of protests in Egypt and promised to oversee a transition to democracy. But its use of Mubarak-era tactics of repression and the slow transition have angered Egyptian activists and protesters.

Mounting frustration erupted into protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square on Friday, spurring the SCAF to announce changes to election laws that the parties feared would allow members of Mr. Mubarak's regime to easily win seats in parliamentary elections set for November.

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While the move marks significant victory for political parties, it has failed to allay concerns over just how long the military intends to stay in power.

“Definitely [SCAF]l will be in power more than the six months it had predicted when it took power,” says Mustapha Kamel Al Sayyid, political science professor at the American University in Cairo. “It is [a problem], because I think politically stability will not be restored in Egypt until all institutions are in place; once we have a president of the republic.”

What the SCAF agreed to do

After a meeting with about a dozen political parties, the SCAF gave in to their demand to change election laws and agreed to allow international elections monitors, which it had previously opposed.

The military rulers also said they would amend the electoral law that had reserved one third of parliamentary seats for independent candidates. Parties will now be able to nominate members for those seats.

But the SCAF only agreed to consider, not implement, other key demands of protesters and political parties, such as ending the emergency law, which gives police wide-ranging powers and was used extensively as a tool of oppression under Mubarak.

A long timeline for military rule

Also, in a document stating the outcome of the meeting, the military put into writing the transition timeline – which would not see the generals giving up political power until late 2012.

The timeline set out in the agreement would see a joint session of parliament begin by April, after both houses are elected, to select a committee to draft a new constitution. Presidential campaigns cannot begin until the constitution is approved through a referendum, which must take place by next October.

The military is not “seeking to prolong the transitional period,” said Army chief of Staff Sami Enan, who met with the political leaders, according to official news agency MENA. “It is committed to a clear and precise timetable to transfer power after the election of a president.”

Frustration mounting

Frustration with the military’s rule is growing, however.

Thousands of Egyptians returned to Tahrir Square Friday in protest of its handling of the transition period. The most organized group in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, did not officially take part, but threatened to send its members to the streets in massive protest if the election law was not changed by Sunday. Other parties had mulled a boycott of the elections.

The military also announced last month it would extend the emergency law, though it had promised to rescind the law by the end of September. And since Mubarak was ousted, the military has tried more than 12,000 civilians in military courts, denying them basic rights.

Last week, security forces raided the offices of a local Al Jazeera affiliate for the second time in a month.

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