Mubarak approves multi-candidate elections

In what the Associated Press describes as a “surprise announcement,” Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has declared that multiple candidates could run in the nation’s next presidential elections for the first time since he came to power in 1981.

Mubarak said he asked parliament and the Shura Council to amend Article 76 of the constitution, which deals with presidential elections. Mohammed Kamal, a leading member of the ruling party’s policy-making committee, said parliament would propose its amendment within two weeks.

Mubarak said the amendment would then be put to a public referendum before the presidential polls, which are scheduled for September. Kamal said he expected the referendum to be held within nine weeks.

As recently as last month Mubarak had rejected opposition demands to open presidential balloting to other candidates, and he was obviously aware of the historic potential of his announcement.

Call me hopelessly naive if you must, but isn’t it remotely possible that Mubarak’s U-turn had something to do with the recent elections in the Palestinian territories and Iraq, as well as sharp American criticism of the jailing of opposition leader Ayman Nour?

Of course it’s not yet the dawn of democracy in Egypt. A simple declaration by Mubarak is not enough, and democrats need to keep the pressure on Egypt to release Nour and other political prisoners.

But I can’t help continuing to think that something is beginning to happen.

Update: Condoleezza Rice’s postponement of a planned visit to Egypt may also have been a factor.