Egypt’s military council announces new law on political parties, says to hold parliamentary elections in September

More protests as justice minister warns of chaos, lack of security

Egypt’s prime minister visits Sudan to boost relations, sign agreements

Kuwaiti, Iraqi FMs affirm 1st meeting of joint committee to solve outstanding issues succeeded

Egypt's ruling military council approved a law easing curbs that choked political life under deposed President Hosni Mubarak, opening the door for the formation of new parties that will compete in elections.

* The parties' principles, programs, activities and selection of leaders and members must not be based on religion, geography or race. There should be no discrimination on the basis of sex, language, ethnicity or religion.

* Parties must not establish military or paramilitary wings, must not be part of any foreign political organization and must declare their principles, goals and financial means.

* Parties must provide written notification of their intention to begin work to a parties committee made up of judges and which will be chaired by the head of the court of cassation. The notification must be signed by 5,000 members from 10 governorates, with at least 300 members from each governorate. The parties committee was previously chaired by the head of the upper house of parliament, who was also a leading figure in Mubarak's ruling party.

* Parties will enjoy legal status and can start work 30 days after submitting their paperwork to the parties committee, as long as the committee does not object.

* Parties' programs, goals and methods must not contravene constitutional requirements to guard national security, unity, civil peace and democracy.

* Parties are required to disclose to the authorities all donations at the end of the year.

* The head of the parties committee has the right to ask the Supreme Administrative Court to dissolve any party which contravenes the law.

Egypt will hold its first parliamentary election since the fall of president Hosni Mubarak in September and the decades-long state of emergency will be lifted for the polls, the country's military rulers said.

But no date has yet been decided for a presidential vote, said General Mamduh Shahin of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which took power after 18 days of nationwide protests forced Mubarak to quit.

"The legislative elections will be held in September," he told reporters.

"We must hold legislative elections and when that is done we will announce the date for the presidential polls," Shahin said.

The military council stepped in to fill the political vacuum in Egypt when Mubarak quit on February 11 after three decades of autocratic rule.

The state of emergency was imposed after the 1981 assassination of Mubarak's predecessor Anwar Sadat by Islamist gunmen at a military parade and was never lifted.

Human rights groups have consistently denounced the state of emergency which gives police wide powers of arrests, suspends constitutional rights and curbs non-governmental political activity.

"Parliamentary and presidential elections will not be held under the state of emergency," Shahin said, indicating that the hateful measures could be lifted by September.

Shahin also announced amendments to a party law that make it easier to form political parties but still banned those based on religion.

A text of the amendments published by the official MENA news agency said parties "cannot base their principles, program or activity, or choice of leaders and members on religion, class, or sect."

Another amendment scraps a committee that often stymied groups from obtaining party status.

Earlier this month the council organized a key referendum on proposed constitutional amendments, paving the way for post-Mubarak parliamentary and legislative elections within six months.

On March 19 more than 14 million Egyptians, or 77 percent of those who voted in the referendum, approved the military's plans for a swift return to civilian life, in the first test of democracy since the fall of Mubarak.

The Muslim Brotherhood threw its huge influence and organization behind a "yes" vote, although youth groups that spearheaded the protests which forced Mubarak to resign had called for a "no" vote.

They argued that the timetable set by the military was too tight for them to organize at grass roots level, that the Muslim Brotherhood would benefit and that the changes to the Mubarak-era constitution were too limited.

The Muslim Brotherhood, the largest opposition movement in the country and officially banned in the Mubarak era, used its new found freedom -- and organizational skills -- to campaign for a "yes" vote.

The group, and other more fundamentalist religious movements, presented the "yes" vote as a religious duty, although many at polling stations said they voted "yes" for the sake of "stability" rather than religious inclinations.

Egypt held its last parliamentary election in November/December, and this was to be followed by presidential polls in September.

Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party won 80 percent of seats in the last legislative polls, which were denounced over alleged widespread fraud and violence during the campaign and the vote itself.

That parliament was quickly dissolved after Mubarak's ouster.

The Brotherhood had said days before the referendum that it had reached an agreement in principle to run a joint list with other parties in the next parliamentary election.

The heads of the Islamist group and some smaller secular parties agreed to run a united list in the election, Khairat al-Shater, one of the Brotherhood's deputies, told AFP on March 16.

The changes approved in the March 19 referendum are by themselves uncontroversial, although critics argued they did not go far enough in overhauling the Mubarak-era charter.

The president will serve a maximum of two four-year terms and will no longer have the power to refer civilians to the military courts.

The state of emergency which has governed Egyptian life for decades will be able to be imposed for just six months without endorsement in a popular referendum.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, visiting Cairo for the first time since Mubarak was toppled, said Egyptians who had become active in politics should have the time "to develop political parties and to develop organization and structure."

But he steered clear of an Egyptian debate about the timetable the military has charted toward legislative elections as soon as September -- a timeline criticized as too tight by nascent political groups who want to get organized first.

Some opposition groups, which were crushed for decades by Mubarak, say the schedule favors the well-organized Brotherhood and remnants of Mubarak's ruling party.

"We are racing against time," said Shady Ghazali Harb, a member of a coalition of youth groups that mobilized protests against Mubarak. "They are pressuring us with the time factor because of the insistence on holding elections so soon."

Asked about the timetable, Gates said: "I'm absolutely not going to second-guess either the supreme council or the interim government." He is due to meet the head of the council, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi.

Mubarak's Egypt was a close ally of the United States, which still has close defense ties with the Egyptian military.

Washington praised the army's role during the Egyptian uprising that helped inspire revolts against autocrats across the region.

Washington is also watching closely to see what kind of role the Brotherhood will play in the new Egypt.

The Brotherhood's "Freedom and Justice Party" is expected to be announced within days. Its growing prominence, along with more radical Islamist groups that were crushed by Mubarak, has alarmed secular intellectuals and activists who joined forces with the Brotherhood in the uprising.

The Brotherhood has sought to reassure other Egyptians, saying it will not seek a parliamentary majority or the presidency in the elections later this year.

"This is a temporary position until the time there are forces that can compete. At that point, we will take part in the competition," said Mohamed el-Beltagi, a Brotherhood leader.

Under Mubarak's rule, parties needed a license from a committee headed by the head of the upper house of parliament, who was also a leading figure in the ruling party.

Opposition parties that did exist were at best seen as a joke and at worst pliant tools of the Mubarak administration. The new law requires parties to secure the backing of 1,000 founding members from at least 10 provinces. It removes a stipulation that parties must not have a religious basis, but says they should not discriminate on the grounds of religion.

The military appears keen to relinquish power as quickly as possible to a civilian, elected government.

Egypt passed a milestone on the road to elections at the weekend when amendments to the constitution were passed by a large majority in a referendum. The changes open up competition for the presidency held by Mubarak for three decades.

The military council issued a constitutional decree which included the amended articles. The decree is designed to "organize authority in the interim period" and will last until legislative and presidential elections are held.

Further legal steps were taken against symbols of Mubarak's rule. The public prosecutor referred Habib al-Adli, the former interior minister, and four other high-ranking officers for trial on charges of killing protesters, disrupting stability, and of spreading "chaos in the country" that harmed Egypt's economy, a statement said.

A committee set up to investigate violence during demonstrations that toppled Mubarak also laid charges against the former president for intentional murder of protesters, a state newspaper said.

The stock exchange opened for the first time since January and the main index tumbled 8.95 percent.

Egypt will make the completion of a partially-built canal spanning a non-navigable section of the river Nile in south Sudan a top priority, a cabinet spokesman said.

As Prime Minister Essam Sharaf visited Egypt's soon-to-be partitioned southern neighbor, cabinet spokesman Magdi Radi told a news conference in Khartoum: "We want to start the building of the Jonglei Canal, because it is a top priority. It offers to provide four billion cubic meters of Nile water (annually)."

The 360-kilometre (220-mile) canal project, which would drain the swamps in south Sudan's Jonglei state and carry the water into the White Nile, was begun in 1978 but abandoned just six years later after a raid by southern rebels.

Radi was speaking after a joint ministerial meeting on the first day of a two-day visit to Sudan by an Egyptian delegation led by Sharaf, which also includes the foreign, agriculture and irrigation ministers.

It is their first such foreign trip since the new government was appointed by the army after weeks of nationwide protests toppled veteran Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak last month.

Foreign Minister Nabil al-Arabi said his country would be the second, after Sudan, to recognize an independent south, when it splits from the north in July, following January's landmark referendum.

Sudan is an important ally for Egypt both in terms of its agricultural potential and in Cairo's efforts to secure an acceptable agreement with upstream Nile countries about the future of its vital water supplies.

Sharaf said Egypt was the third largest investor in Sudan, with current investments amounting to $5.4 billion, and that he wanted to see this rise.

The Egyptian premier highlighted an agreement by the joint ministerial committee to develop food security through different agricultural projects in Sudan.

"The first strategic project for us is meat production and ethanol production. We will also have a contractual partnership in the Gezira scheme," he said, referring to Sudan's vast but neglected farming project on land between the Blue and White Nile, south of Khartoum.

Sudanese officials said that 41,000 feddans (17,000 hectares) of land in White Nile state had been set aside for the meat project.

Egypt's Minister of Agriculture, Ayman Abu Hadid, described some of the food projects as urgent, saying that the production of meat and sugar could start within six months.

Egypt is particularly keen to develop closer ties with south Sudan as it fears its vital water supplies could be dangerously reduced if upstream countries are able to divert the Nile's flow without consultation.

Radi said Egypt wanted to help Africa's newest nation-to-be and was already developing electricity and education projects in the impoverished region.

The Egyptian delegation traveled to Juba.

Meanwhile, Kuwaiti Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Dr. Mohammad Sabah Al-Salem Al-Sabah and visiting Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari agreed that the first meeting of the joint ministerial committee made headway in solving outstanding issues.

Addressing a joint press conference here this evening at the end of the two-day meeting, Sheikh Dr. Mohammad said His Highness the Amir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah was keen on receiving the Iraqi side of the committee out of sincere desire to build firm relationship with sisterly Iraq based on mutual confidence and neighborliness.

"We bet that the new democratic and open Iraq will be a helping factor for regional stability and security; we are sure of winning the bet," Sheikh Dr. Mohammad said.

As for the sticking points between the two neighbors, he said: "The agenda of the meeting included 12 items covering almost all bilateral issues." "These issues include clear-cut international obligations that do not need explanation and to which Iraq is definitely committed; they include the maintenance of the border marks and compensations for Kuwait," he noted.

"There are other bilateral issues that need negotiation and mutual trust to reach a mutually-acceptable settlement; these include the issue of debts owed by Iraq to Kuwait," he added.

On his part, Zebari agreed that the debt issue is a bilateral one that is not included in the UN Security Council resolutions related to Iraq.

"The just-ended meeting highlighted the need for developing mechanisms to tackle such issues and tacked almost all controversial issues.

"I think the coming committee meeting, due in Baghdad, will be more important for solving the essential issues although the just-ended meeting is one of the most important meetings between the two sides since the ouster of the former Iraqi regime (of Saddam Hussein)," he said.

"There are a range of crucial decisions that need to be made in order to pave the way ridding Iraq of the sanctions adopted under Chapter VII of the UN Charter during the defunct regime," Zebari affirmed.

"We have discussed Iraq's commitments to the UNSC resolution 833 relating to the sovereignty and safety of Kuwait and the freedom of navigation at the maritime corridors as well as the compensations for farmers," he added.

The Iraqi minister noted that his delegation felt a sincere desire on the part of Kuwait to help his country get rid of the UN-imposed sanctions.

He reaffirmed that the new democratic Iraq is totally different from the Saddamite one and seeks neighborly ties with sisterly Kuwait.

The Iraqi top diplomat expressed gratitude for HH the Amir, HH the Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser Al-Mohammad Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah and Sheikh Dr. Mohammad for the warm reception and hospitality they offered to him and his entourage.