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Egypt parties retract boycott threat after army concessions

Oct 2, 2011, 3:44 p.m.
Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, head of Egypt's ruling military council, meets with visiting Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi in Cairo in this May 3, 2011 file photo. REUTERS/Pool/Xinhua/Cai Yang/Files

By Tamim Elyan

CAIRO (Reuters) - Egyptian political parties accepted on Sunday concessions on election rules offered by the military, pulling back from threats to boycott Egypt's first multi-candidate vote since President Hosni Mubarak was ousted.

The parties, seeking to keep former allies of Mubarak out of parliament, had threatened to boycott the polls unless the army changed an election law to allow them to field candidates both on party lists and for seats allocated to individuals.

The ruling army council said on Saturday it would amend that law, set a clearer timetable for a move to civilian rule and would consider ending military trials for civilians and lifting of emergency laws.

But political activists and parties said the army's statement had fallen short of meeting their demand of immediately lifting emergency laws and preventing remnants of Mubarak's former ruling party from running. Parties meeting on Sunday said although they have dropped the boycott threat, they would continue to press for the other demands to be met.

"We want the state of emergency to end and remnants of the regime to be barred from political life," an alliance of 34 parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood and liberal al-Wafd party, said in a statement.

Egypt's parliamentary elections are due to begin on November 28.

Mubarak's former allies, many of them local notables who still enjoy clout in their areas, have been spurned by most parties, leaving them with few options to get re-elected to parliament apart from running as independents.

"Boycotting the elections was a threatening option to pressure the military council, not a serious one," Essam el-Erian, deputy head of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice party, told Reuters earlier on Sunday.

"Political parties are established to participate in elections, not to boycott them."

The army enjoyed widespread support for maintaining order after Mubarak was toppled in February and for promising to respect demands for democratic change. But Egyptians have grown more vocal in criticizing its handling of the transition.

Thousands packed central Cairo on Saturday to keep up pressure on the military to sideline Egypt's discredited old elite before the elections, designed to usher in civilian rule.

CONSTITUTION PRINCIPLES

Laying out the timetable for the transition of power, the military council said on Saturday the lower house of parliament would begin its work in the second half of January and the upper house, or Shura Council, on March 24.

A joint meeting of both houses would take place by the first week of April to choose the composition of a constituent assembly that would draft a new constitution.

The parties and the military council agreed on Saturday to lay down non-binding guidelines for the new constitution, ending a dispute between liberals and Islamists over some of the document's principles.

Liberal and leftist groups have been demanding guarantees that the new constitution will ensure a civil state, fearing that any future Islamist majority could push through the creation of a theocracy.

Islamists argue that laying down such rules before the elected constituent assembly meets is undemocratic.

"The meeting ended the debate over supra-constitutional principles and they will be announced once we agree on them," said Mohamed Morsi, head of Freedom and Justice, in a statement on the Brotherhood's official website, Ikhwan Online.

Presidential candidates would be allowed to nominate themselves a day after the new constitution is approved through a referendum, MENA added.

Elections, which under Mubarak were marred by ballot stuffing, vote buying and intimidation, may be monitored by foreign non-governmental organizations and media, it said.

The military had previously said it would not permit international monitoring of the elections.

The army also said it would consider ending military trials for civilians and would study the status of an emergency law criticized by rights groups for handing the authorities sweeping powers of arrest and detention.

It has previously said the law would stay in force until next year. Six presidential hopefuls said in a joint statement on Thursday that the state of emergency legally expired on Friday, saying any further use of it was devoid of legitimacy.

(Writing by Edmund Blair and Dina Zayed; Editing by Rosalind Russell/Ruth Pitchford)

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