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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Egypt's Moussa indicates will run for president, Posted by Meosha Eaton

* Referendum on constitutional reform expected in March
* Military seen lifting law that curbed political parties
* US senator: "Great country, great history, great future"

(Recasts with Amr Moussa)

By Marwa Awad

CAIRO, Feb 27 (Reuters) - Veteran Egyptian diplomat Amr Moussa said on Sunday he intends to run for president, a post held for three decades by Hosni Mubarak until he was toppled from power by a mass uprising this month.

Moussa, 74, and Arab League secretary general for a decade, said in a statement it was his intention to run for the post but would make a decision later once constitutional amendments are finalised that will open up competition for the job. The military council, in power since Mubarak's ouster on Feb. 11, is expected to call a referendum on the constitutional changes for March, Sobhi Saleh, a lawyer who helped draft them said on Sunday. It would announce the date this week, he said.

It is also set to cancel a law which gave Mubarak's administration the power to decide who was allowed to form a party, Saleh, a member of the 10-man judicial committee appointed by the military council, told Reuters. Both steps will be big milestones on the road to elections, which officials have signaled could happen within months. Egyptians hope for a new democratic era, though some are concerned the transition from decades of autocracy is too fast. "The military council hands power to the people in a gradual process," Saleh said. "The parties law will be cancelled."

The reforms will limit a leader's time in the presidency to two four-year terms and ensure judicial oversight of elections. Mubarak was in his fifth, six-year term when he was toppled. The proposed constitutional amendments have not triggered major objections from opposition groups which had long called for the reforms outlined by the judicial committee. However, many Egyptians say the country needs an entirely new constitution -- something the judicial committee has said will happen after elections. "No one has objected to the constitutional amendments proposed," Sobhi said.

The military council has suspended the existing constitution and dissolved both houses of parliament. Elections to both the upper and lower chambers would follow the referendum, Saleh said, without saying when, and presidential elections would happen thereafter. The reforms will make it much easier for Egyptians to run for the presidency, removing requirements which made it almost impossible for anyone but the ruling party and representatives of weak opposition parties to field a candidate for the post.

That will open the door to Moussa, who served as Mubarak's foreign minister for 10 years until 2001 and enjoys wide respect among Egyptians for outspoken remarks often directed against Israel and the United States. He warned that the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 would open the "gates of hell" in the region. More recently, following the toppling of Tunisia's president in January, he warned Arab leaders of unprecedented anger among the Arab public.

Moussa met U.S. Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman and Republican Senator John McCain on Sunday. They later toured Tahrir Square, the hub of the protests that overthrew Mubarak, a long-time ally of the United States. "We're very happy to be here, it's very exciting new era for a great country, great history, great future," Lieberman said. Saleh, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, said the presidential powers would stay in the hands of the military until a president is elected.

The military council has said it hopes to hold the elections and hand power back to a civilian authority within six months. Some opposition figures are concerned that a rush towards elections is not in the best interests of democratic change. Mubarak's administration had suppressed opposition groups for decades and they say they need time to regroup.

They say only the Muslim Brotherhood, which was formally banned under Mubarak, is in the position to mount an election campaign, though the group says it will not seek a majority in parliament or the presidency. A quick election will also suit the remnants of the National Democratic Party, the ruling party which had dominated parliament under Mubarak. "The interim period should have been longer," said Hassan Nafaa, a political scientist.

(Additional reporting by Yasmine Saleh, Patrick Werr, Shaimaa Fayed and Ashraf Fahim; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Elizabeth Fullerton)

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