updated 2/14/2006 6:29:30 PM ET 2006-02-14T23:29:30

The Egyptian parliament Tuesday postponed local elections for two years despite opposition from the United States and a leading fundamentalist group, a state-owned newspaper and lawmakers said.

President Hosni Mubarak issued a decree calling for the law last week, saying he needed the time to draft legislation giving municipalities more power.

“The law was approved by a majority and the government succeeded in refuting the opposition’s objections,” Al-Gomhuria said in its early Wednesday edition.

A spokesman for the opposition Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammed Saeed el-Katatni, said the law was approved by 348 of parliament’s 454 lawmakers. It was passed by the Shura Council, parliament’s upper house, on Sunday.

“This is a sad day for Egypt. The dictatorship of majority again tried to exploit their numbers to prevent the voice of the people,” el-Katatni said.

The Brotherhood made a strong showing in legislative elections last year, and some saw the new law as an effort to block the group’s ascendance.

Elections originally set for next 60 days
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the Bush administration supports Egypt’s progress toward democracy but opposed Mubarak’s decision to put off local elections.

“We will be talking to them about this,” McCormack said in Tuesday’s regular briefing. “As a matter of principle, we don’t support postponing of elections that have been scheduled.”

The council terms were due to have expired Tuesday, requiring elections within 60 days.

But that schedule would have brought a new vote on the heels of parliament elections late last year that saw surprise victories by the Muslim Brotherhood — Egypt’s most powerful fundamentalist group, which increased its representation in the assembly from 15 to 88 seats.

Mubarak, a top ally of the United States, has come under pressure from Washington to increase democracy in a country where he has held near autocratic rule for 29 years.

But U.S. officials have expressed concern his government is backing off the drive for reform. After praising Mubarak’s decision to hold the first multi-candidate presidential elections in September, Washington sharply criticized the parliament voting in November and December, which saw violence by police and government supporters trying to prevent Brotherhood and other opposition voters from casting ballots.

Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif acknowledged that government interference had prevented even greater Brotherhood gains.

“It (the Brotherhood) could have gone up to 40 (more seats),” he told Newsweek magazine in an interview published Jan. 30.

Mubarak’s National Democratic Party still holds a 311-seat majority in parliament.

Setback to Middle East peace efforts
The difficulty facing U.S. efforts to bring reform in the Middle East have been highlighted by the Brotherhood gains in Egypt — and more dramatically by the landslide victory of the radical group Hamas in Palestinian parliament elections last month. Those wins showed the appeal of fundamentalist groups that Washington is wary of — or outright opposes — among voters who either back the groups’ hard-line stances or want to protest the region’s long-entrenched rulers.

“After the victories of the Brotherhood in Egypt and Hamas in Palestine, the NDP is afraid of the pro-Islamist atmosphere,” Mukhtar said, referring to Mubarak’s party.

The Brotherhood — which is officially banned but is tolerated to a degree by the government — boycotted 2002 elections for the local councils, which are responsible for services at the district, town and village levels.

But it had announced its intention to enter the elections that had been planned for this year. As in the parliament elections, their candidates run as independents, though their connection to the Brotherhood is well known.

Key tool for ruling party
The councils represent a key tool in the ruling party’s control at a local level. The councils are also a possible gateway to getting a Brotherhood candidate into future presidential elections.

Under a constitutional amendment passed last year allowing multi-candidate presidential elections, a would-be independent candidate can only enter the race if he gathers 250 signatures from elected bodies — including the parliament and the local councils.

Any Brotherhood candidate would have to run as an independent, but the current NDP domination of parliament and the local council assures none could get approval under the rules.

The ruling party said the two-year extension aimed to give time for constitutional amendments that would increase the councils’ power in what the government says is a plan to decentralize authority, increasing the margin of democracy.

The exact nature of the constitutional amendment has not been made public.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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