JAPAN'S anguish and Libya's torment have understandably dominated the news over the past week but it is nonetheless surprising that so little has been heard of Egypt's first step towards constitutional and political reform which is set for next Saturday when a national referendum will be held on changes to the constitution proposed by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the country's interim government. If these changes are approved there will be parliamentary elections in June and a presidential election in September. Everyone over 18 and holding a national identity card -- some forty million people -- will be able to vote.
Not everyone is in favour of this referendum. The Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei who is likely to be a presidential candidate thinks it is premature and should not be limited to amendments to the old Mubarak constitution. However, one of the eight amendments provides for a commission of the parliament elected in June to draft a completely new constitution. Other important provisions include judicial oversight of elections and a limitation of two terms of office for the president. However, there has been criticism at the lack of any restriction on financing of political parties.
The amazing demonstrations for change that eventually unseated Mubarak one month ago were but the first step towards a new democratic deal for Egypt. The really difficult, though much less spectacular part, begins with Saturday's referendum.