Egypt's long banned Muslim Brotherhood said Tuesday it intends to form a political party once democracy is established, as the country's new military rulers launched a panel of experts to amend the country's constitution enough to allow democratic elections later this year.
The military is trying to push ahead quickly with a transition after Hosni Mubarak resigned Friday in the face of 18 days of unprecedented popular protests that massed hundreds of thousands. Generals from the Armed Forces Supreme Council, which now rules Egypt, said Tuesday the military wants to hand power to a government and elected president within six months, the firmest timetable yet outlined.
The constitutional panel is to draw up changes at a breakneck pace — within 10 days — to end the monopoly that ousted President Hosni Mubarak's ruling party once held, which it ensured through widespread election rigging.
The military has long opposed the Brotherhood. But with the panel, it gave a strong sign it recognizes that the fundamentalist group, which calls for an Islamic state in Egypt, can no longer be barred from politics. A former Brotherhood lawmaker was named to the eight-member panel, along with other experts of various ideologies, including a secular liberal scholar and three judges from the current Supreme Constitutional Court, one of them a Christian.
In Washington, President Barack Obama on Tuesday praised Egypt's military council for working to set the stage for elections and a turnover of the government back to civilian control.
"Egypt's going to require help in building democratic institutions, for strengthening an economy that's taken a hit. So far, at least, we're seeing the right signals coming out of Egypt," Obama told reporters.
Egypt's Foreign Minster Ahmed Aboul Gheit called on the international community to provide aid to boost Egypt's economy, battered by three weeks of turmoil and still hit by labor strikes.
The initial constitutional changes proposed in Egypt may not be enough for many in Egypt calling for the current constitution, now suspended by the military, to be thrown out completely and rewritten to ensure no one can once again establish autocratic rule. Two members on the panel said the next elected government could further change the document if it choses.
The eight-member committee held its opening meeting with Defense Minister Hussein Tantawi on Tuesday, one of its members, legal scholar Mohammed Hassanein Abdel-Al, told The Associated Press.
The panel is headed by Tareq el-Bishri, considered one of Egypt's top legal minds. A former judge, he was once a secular leftist but became a prominent thinker in the "moderate Islamic" political trend. He is respected on both sides as a bridge between the movements.
The military is now also urging an end to labor strikes spreading wildly across the country since last week and hitting many government offices and industries. The strikes gave an added element of turmoil that which along with rapidly mushrooming protests, prompted the military to force Mubarak out. Strikes have continued since even as the political protests themselves have largely ended for the moment.
The Supreme Council warned on Tuesday that continuing strikes and protests would be "disastrous," arguing that only when they stop could the economic and social ills plaguing the country could be tackled, the state news agency MENA reported.
In a move likely to deepen the country's economic crisis, state TV said the Central Bank of Egypt ordered banks to remain closed Wednesday and Thursday, the last two days of the Egyptian business week. The stock market has now been closed for three weeks and there is no word on when it will reopen. It lost about 17 percent of its value in two sessions soon after the protests began Jan. 25.
In a nod to the anger over corruption that is fueling strikes and protests, the council acknowledged how widespread the malfeasance was in the ousted regime.
"No one expected that the corruption was of this size," the council said, according to MENA. "The council does not have a magic wand to end it immediately," but it vowed to work to stop new corruption. MENA cited "sources close to the council," but it appeared to be quoting at least some of the council's generals.
The strikes eased Tuesday, mainly because an Islamic holiday closed state offices and businesses. Still, smaller protests by hundreds continued in at least seven provinces outside Cairo, including by government workers and police over pay. Fishermen in the Nile Delta demanded an end to restrictions on where they can fish in a lake north of the capital. Sugar cane growers in the southern city of Luxor demonstrated demanding higher prices for their crops.
The potential for the Brotherhood to exploit Egypt's upheaval and gain greater influence has worried some Egyptians — and raised alarm bells in neighboring Israel and among some in the United States.
Last week, Obama played down prospects the Muslim Brotherhood would take a major role in a new government, calling it only "one faction in Egypt" that does not enjoy majority support.
The group is eager to now have a legitimate role after decades of suppression under Mubarak, whose regime arrested thousands of its members in regular crackdowns.
The Brotherhood announced Tuesday that it would form a party once promised freer laws are in place.
"The Muslim Brotherhood group believes in the freedom of the formation of political parties. They are eager to have a political party," spokesman Mohammed Mursi said in a statement on the Brotherhood website.
Essam el-Erian, a senior leader in the Brotherhood, said the movement would not run any candidate for upcoming presidential elections, acknowledging that such a move would be too controversial.
"We are not going to have a candidate for the upcoming presidential elections. Its time for solidarity, its time for unity, in my opinion we need a national consensus," he said. He said the Brotherhood's top leadership had decided on the creation of a party.
The Brotherhood is the most organized opposition movement in the country — except perhaps the secular, liberal youth activists who led the protests themselves, though they have not moved to form their own political party.
The Muslim Brotherhood, banned since 1954, could not form a party but ran candidates for parliament as independents. In 2005, it made a surprisingly strong showing, winning 20 percent of parliament's seats. But it was pushed out completely in the most recent election in November and December, plagued by fraud.
But many in Egypt argue that its strength is exaggerated, inflated by the government's suppression that brought it sympathy among some.
They, including the protest leaders, say the Brotherhood has to be allowed freedom to compete in a democracy alongside everyone else. Support by young cadres in the Brotherhood was key to the protests' success, providing manpower and organization, though they never came to form a majority in the wave of demonstrations.
Throughout Mubarak's rule, his regime kept a stranglehold on Egyptian politics.
Any opposition parties had to be approved by a commission run by his ruling National Democratic Party. The constitution stiffly restricts who can run for president, preventing a real challenger. It also lifted almost all independent supervision of elections, opening the door to vote rigging that ensured the most recent parliament — now dissolved — was almost entirely made up of Mubarak's ruling party.
As a result, the existing political parties are hollow shells, with little public following. The constitution also explicitly bans any parties formed on a religious basis.
The new constitutional panel is mandated to draw up amendments within 10 days to be put to a referendum, paving the way for elections. The military specified six articles to be amended or thrown out "along with changes to any connected articles that the committee deems necessary," according to the military's statement to the panel, read to The Associated Press by Abdel-Al.
"This is a critical moment and things have to be dealt with on a priority basis," Abdel-Al said of the decision to focus on those select articles, which are the main ones imposing restrictions on elections and allowing the president to run as many times as he wants. "This is a preliminary requirement to hold free democratic elections ... our task is to make it feasible for that to happen."
"The future parliament and government can decide whether to make further amendments or rewrite the whole thing," he said.
Sobhi Saleh, the Brotherhood member on the panel, said the goal was to "cleanse" the constitution to ensure freedom of political parties and other rights ahead of the election. "After the transition to a democratic life and freedoms, parties and political forces can get together and work on a complete constitution," he said.
The Armed Forces Supreme Council, grouping the defense minister and top generals, has dissolved parliament and suspended the constitution — steps that encouraged protest leaders because both were pillars of the Mubarak regime. But it has kept in place the last government installed by Mubarak as a caretaker until a new one is named.
Protesters have welcomed many of the military's moves, but remain suspicious whether it will completely hand over power or change the system.
MENA's Tuesday report showed some defensiveness on the council about Mubarak. It said they praised Mubarak for his decision to resign which saved the country from "untold disaster." They denied what they called "fabricated stories" about the former leader, arguing that he had long track record of achievements but that his rule was not without mistakes.
On Monday, the coalition of activists who organized the protest movement pushed the military for further steps. In a list of demands Monday, they called for the dissolving of Mubarak's National Democratic Party and for the creation of a Cabinet of technocrats within 30 days. They want it to replace the current caretaker government.
Protesters in Tahrir Square, the symbolic heart of the uprising, have emptied the area, with the military stepping in to pack up tents and blankets in the past two days and asking people to leave. The activists' coalition called for an official end to its demonstrations, in a gesture to the interim leadership. But protest organizers are planning a new mass demonstration on Friday, seeking to bring 1 million to the square to call for the meeting of their demands — including the release of political detainees and the cancellation of emergency laws.
In a rare admission Sunday, the new interior minister in the caretaker government said there may be about 10,000 political prisoners in Egyptian prisons, and that he is reviewing their files. His comments were published in the daily Al-Masry Al-Youm on Monday. The number includes opponents jailed for years under Mubarak's regime.