CAIRO – Arab League chief Amr Moussa, a popular career diplomat, said Sunday he plans to run in Egypt's presidential election expected later this year.
Moussa, a former foreign minister, declared his candidacy a day after a constitutional reform panel appointed by the country's new military rulers recommended far-reaching reforms that relaxed eligibility rules governing who can run for president.
The changes, if adopted in a national referendum, would open presidential elections to more competition and impose a two-term limit on future presidents — a dramatic shift from a system that allowed ousted leader Hosni Mubarak to rule for three decades.
Moussa told reporters the amendments were still under discussion but that any Egyptian can now run for president.
"God willing, I will be one of them," he said.
Asked if he was going to run as an independent or join a political party, Moussa said: "This is a detail that we will deal with later."
Moussa enjoys wide popularity in Egypt, largely because of his scathing criticism of Israel, a country seen by most Egyptians as an enemy despite the 1979 peace treaty between the two neighbors.
As foreign minister, Moussa had gained such a strong following among Egyptians that his nomination for the Arab League post was seen by some as an attempt by Mubarak's government to sideline him before he posed a political threat.
During the 18-day pro-democracy uprising that forced Mubarak to step down as president on Feb. 11, Moussa visited Cairo's central Tahrir Square — the epicenter of protests. His visit was widely seen as a test of his popularity.
His convoy was greeted with chants of "We want you as president, we want you as president!"
Before becoming the Arab League's secretary-general in 2001, Moussa served as Egypt's foreign minister for 10 years.
The law school graduate became involved in foreign affairs early in his career as a member of the Egyptian delegation to the United Nations in 1972. He headed the delegation in 1982, a few years after serving as chief of the International Organization Department at the Foreign Ministry, and again in 1990. In 1983, he was named ambassador to India. After that assignment, Moussa returned to the Foreign Ministry, where he was appointed minister in May 1991.
Earlier Sunday, about 500 Egyptians protested in Tahrir Square to demand that Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq resign, saying he is a continuation of Mubarak's rule. "Shafiq should leave," they chanted. Mubarak appointed Shafiq in a Cabinet shake-up early on in the uprising in a failed attempt to defuse the unrest, and he has remained in the position as part of a caretaker government.
"Ahmed Shafiq was chosen by Mubarak. This means that this is a Mubarak government," said 36-year-old merchant Sayyed Aboul Gheit. "There are many Egyptians who can take this post."
In the southern province of Assiut on Sunday, villagers blocked a main highway for five hours with burning tires and set fire to three government buildings to protest official corruption, witnesses said.
The demonstrators accused owners of local bakeries of selling subsidized flour on the black market and said the government should ensure better oversight.
In another village in the area, protesters demanding an investigation into government corruption set fire to three local government buildings.
Also Sunday, more than 2,000 employees of the Assiut provincial government went on strike for better living conditions, saying senior officials are distributing social benefits unfairly. Protesters in the area also set a former ruling party building on fire.
Anger over widespread corruption helped drive the uprising that toppled Mubarak.
As tension continues in parts of Egypt, some schools are still closed and the Education Ministry left it up to governors to open schools in their provinces. Many schools are expected to resume classes next week, security officials said.
Also Sunday, the Cabinet announced that the country's stock exchange will reopen for business on Tuesday. The Egyptian exchange has been closed for over a month because of the anti-government protests.
As trials of Mubarak-era officials continue, former Interior Minister Habib al-Adly, who was in charge of police until last month, will go on trial next Saturday, the state-run MENA news agency reported, quoting the head of Cairo's Court of Appeals, Abdul-Aziz Omar.