MENEIET SAMANNOUD, Egypt Former UN nuclear watchdog chief Mohamed ElBaradei issued a public call for change in Egypt on Friday in defiance of an emergency law banning gatherings critical of the authorities.
Plain-clothes security officials stood by as ElBaradei, who has said he may run for president in an election due next year, urged around 700 people in a village in northeastern Eygpt to add their names to a petition calling for reform.
"The state may be a centralized power but the people are stronger," he told the crowd, part of which had come with him from the nearby provincial capital Mansoura in the Nile Delta.
The petition seeks constitutional change to make it easier for independents like ElBaradei to run for president after decades of autocratic rule under President Hosni Mubarak.
It also aims to revoke an Emergency Law that allows detention without charge and bans anti-government political activity like ElBaradei's outdoor public speech and earlier visit to Mansoura, where up to 1,500 supporters greeted him.
"Once we gather as many names as possible we will put it forward and bring about real change," ElBaradei said.
Egyptian police often break up gatherings exceeding five people but Friday's events went ahead without interruption.
"We received instructions from the interior ministry to allow the rally and gathering to go smoothly," said a security officer present at the speech who declined to be named.
Officials calculated that ElBaradei was unlikely to stage another such address so it was best not to interfere, he added.
Political analysts say the chances of securing constitutional change by next year are remote in the most populous Arab country, where Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party dominates political life.
NO ORDINARY OPPONENT
ElBaradei returned to Egypt in February after 12 years as head of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), energizing the country's political scene.
Analysts said the government was clearly aware the 67-year-old was no ordinary political opponent.
"The regime is clever this time because it knows that with ElBaradei the rules of the game are different," Yahya Al Gamal, legal expert and professor of law professor, told Reuters.
"International public opinion is following ElBaradei's every move so the Egyptian government is being smart and behaving in an intelligent way," Al Gamal added.
Some of the people in the crowd at Friday's rally, which included engineers, housewives, doctors and taxi drivers, expressed fear of a state crackdown, even as ElBaradei said his aim was to bring as many people as possible to the streets.
"We seek peaceful reform by rallying large numbers of supporters for change. We seek constitutional amendments and free and fair elections. The Egyptian citizen has the right to choose his president," ElBaradei said.
Mubarak, 81, who returned from Germany on March 27 after gallbladder surgery, has not said whether he plans to run for a sixth six-year term in the election. If he does not, many Egyptians believe he will try to hand power to his son Gamal. Both father and son deny such plans.
Egypt experimented with its first multi-candidate presidential election in 2005, touted it as a process of democratization. Critics said it was a sham.
Up to 1,500 supporters greeted ElBaradei earlier on Friday as he emerged from al Nour mosque in Mansoura on his first public appearance outside Cairo since his return to Egypt.
Some sang the national anthem, others chanted: "ElBaradei, say it strongly, Egypt wants democracy" and "Mansoura is with you."
The former U.N. official said it was a significant day.
"What we saw today is the writing on the wall: the average Egyptian is out on the street calling for change, and this destroys the myth that this movement is by the elite or is just a virtual one on the Internet," ElBaradei told Reuters.
(Reporting by Ghada Abdel Hafez in Meneiet Samannoud. Writing and additional reporting by Marwa Awad in Cairo; editing by Philippa Fletcher)