CAIRO, Egypt – President Hosni Mubarak on Thursday promised deep changes to Egypt's constitution in the next year to reduce the powers of the president and strengthen parliament, trying to counter criticism that his government is backing off promises of greater democracy.
The 78-year-old Mubarak, who has ruled Egypt for a quarter century, laid out his program in a televised closing address to the annual conference of his ruling National Democratic Party, saying, "the coming year will be the year of constitutional reform."
Opposition groups and rights activists accuse Mubarak's government, a top U.S. ally, of rolling back in promises of reform, pointing to widespread violence and alleged vote fraud in parliament elections last year and heavy-handed crackdowns on pro-democracy protesters.
Many believe Mubarak is maneuvering his son, Gamal, a 42-year-old pro-business politician, to succeed him in power — though both deny such a plan. Gamal Mubarak took a prominent role in the three-day NDP conference, which on Thursday reaffirmed him as deputy party chief.
In his speech Thursday, the elder Mubarak vowed "new steps to complete the building of our Egyptian democracy, meeting the legitimate demands of our people and preserving the supreme interests of the nation."
"The coming parliament will see the greatest, broadest constitutional changes since 1980," he said.
Mubarak said the amendments would "boost the role of parliament and expand the Cabinet's power" as well as limit the president's powers.
He also promised to "open the door" to a new anti-terrorism law to replace emergency laws that have been in place throughout his rule, giving police broad powers of arrest. His government had planned to end the emergency laws earlier this year, but put off the move, sparking strong criticism from the opposition.
Mubarak spoke of strengthening Egypt's notoriously weak political parties, but did not address a top opposition demand: ending constitutional controls on the formation of new parties, which must be approved by a government body.
Lifting the rules on political parties would likely open the door for Mubarak's top rivals, the Muslim Brotherhood — which is Egypt's most powerful opposition group but is banned — to gain legal status.
The Brotherhood showed its power at the ballot box in November and December's parliament elections, when it seized a fifth of the parliament's seats, despite reports of fraud by government supporters. The Brotherhood's candidates ran as independents in the race.
The parties commission "remains a restriction on the launching of parties," the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights — one of the country's top independent rights groups — said in its annual report, released Thursday ahead of Mubarak's speech.
It noted that most of the commission's members belong to the ruling party, "making the party both a competitor and the referee" in the political process.
The report noted "a range of violations to the right of political participation" — particularly intervention by security forces on behalf of government candidates during the parliament elections and attacks on observers and judges in the voting.
President Mubarak launched his reform campaign last year, when he announced the country's first multi-candidate presidential elections. He easily won the September presidential vote, and since then his top rival, Ayman Nour, has been imprisoned on forgery charges that Nour contends were trumped up to remove him from politics.
The Bush administration has called greater democracy in the Middle East a top priority, and at one time it wanted Egypt to be the centerpiece of reform. But critics say the United States has backed off pressuring Cairo.
Last week, U.S. President George W. Bush criticized the slow pace of reform in Egypt. But he also gave what some saw as a tacit praise of Gamal Mubarak, pointing to "young reformers" in the Cabinet who are his allies.
The elder Mubarak on Thursday implicitly criticized the United States and its calls for a New Middle East, saying, "we are seeing ... attempts to impose a new regional situation that denies the region's circumstances and priorities and ignores the people's aspirations."
He insisted that resolving the Israeli-Arab conflict was crucial to ending instability in the Middle East.
"It is time that the international powers acknowledge this truth and deal with it a serious, fair and quick way," he said. "The talk about the New or the Greater Middle East ignores this truth. The talk about war on terrorism should be linked with similar talk about its roots and causes."