President Hosni Mubarak on Tuesday pledged to improve democracy in Egypt and abolish the 25-year state of emergency once a new anti-terrorism law is passed.
Laying out the legislative agenda for 2007, Mubarak told lawmakers he would soon ask them to amend 34 articles in the Egyptian constitution to "consecrate the people's sovereignty as a source of power and give parliament more authority to monitor the government."
"Today's historic step opens the door wide for democracy and its practice," Mubarak said in a speech at his palace in Cairo.
A leading Egyptian rights activist, Hisham Qassem, was skeptical of the president's pledge as he has promised greater democracy many times before during his 25 years in power.
"We have to go back to the gap between the regime's actual practices and the demand for amendments ... Will the regime really implement these amendments?" Qassem said. Previous amendments were "followed by theatrical debate while everything was already fixed."
Most of the reforms outlined Tuesday were promised by Mubarak in his election campaign of 2005, but none came to parliament this year.
It is thought the government got cold feet when, two months after the president elections, the opposition Muslim Brotherhood did surprisingly well in the legislative elections of 2005.
Opposition parties and political observers have long accused Mubarak and his National Democratic Party of rigging elections and using the emergency laws _ introduced after President Anwar Sadat's assassination in 1981 _ to stifle dissent in Egypt. The emergency gives the government sweeping powers to detain suspects and restrict public gatherings.
"Terrorism is a red line that I will not allow anyone to cross," Mubarak said Tuesday. "I asked last year to draft a law to combat terrorism to replace the current emergency law."
He did not give a time for the passage of the new anti-terrorism law and the amendments but the government-controlled newspaper Al-Akhbar reported Tuesday that parliament was expected to pass it within three months. Afterward, the amendments would go to a referendum for popular approval, the paper added.
"Democracy is not merely a matter of constitutional or legislative texts. It is a culture and practice, and I call on you to take additional steps to consecrate democracy and employ it as a cultural phenomenon," the president said to lawmakers.