CAIRO Future presidents of Egypt will only be allowed to stay in office for eight years under constitutional amendments that will open up competition for the position held for three decades by ousted leader Hosni Mubarak.
The proposed amendments outlined on Saturday by a judicial committee appointed by Egypt's ruling military council will be put to a referendum ahead of parliamentary and presidential elections that will hand power back to a civilian government.
Mubarak was serving in his fifth, six-year term when he was toppled on February 11, forced from office by a mass uprising driven in large part by demands for reform to put an end to the one-man rule that has defined Egyptian government for decades.
By capping the number of terms a leader can serve, Egypt will be offering an example to other Arab states ruled for decades by autocrats. They include Tunisia, whose president was toppled last month, and Libya, whose leader now faces a revolt.
The existing constitution, suspended by the military council to which Mubarak handed power, made it almost impossible for an opposition candidate to mount a challenge to his ruling National Democratic Party.
Saturday's announcement is a milestone along Egypt's road toward the elections which the military council says it wants to hold within six months and which Egyptians hope will usher in a new era of democracy.
"When the president knows that the period is a maximum of eight years, his despotism will be reduced or eliminated completely," said Mohamed el-Katatni, a spokesman for the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.
Under the amendments, the elections will be subject to judicial supervision, said retired judge Tariq al-Bishri, the head of the committee. He outlined terms for candidacy which are much looser than current requirements.
The many critics of Egypt's constitution say the country still needs an entirely new one. Even after the amendments, the document is riddled with contradictions and still bestows too much power on the president, among other flaws, they say.
ARMY SAYS SORRY TO PROTESTERS
Bishri said a new constitution would be drawn up after elections.
"The autocratic regime had closed all windows," said Abou Elela Mady, founder of the newly-approved Wasat Party. "We had hoped for this, but if the January 25 revolution had not happened, none of this would have been achieved," he said.
The judicial committee had faced calls to propose changes that would allow quick formation of political parties -- something which is highly restricted under existing laws.
They didn't, meaning it is now up to the military council to make changes that will allow parties to form in the run-up to elections, said Mustapha Kamal al-Sayyid, a political scientist.
"It's really important to accelerate the establishment of political parties so we have clear alternatives," he said.
Pressing their demands for more reform, hundreds of protesters camped out in Tahrir Square on Saturday night, returning to the hub of the uprising that toppled Mubarak. Their demands include the removal of the prime minister.
Their feelings are running high after the military cleared them out of the square by force in the early hours of the morning, using sticks and tasers, protesters said. It was toughest move yet by the army against the demonstrators.
The military council apologised, said there had been no order to assault the protesters, and called the incident unintentional. Twenty-seven protesters detained overnight were released, the army said, blaming the incident on "infiltrators" it said had thrown bottles and rocks at soldiers.
(Additional reporting by Dina Zayed, Yasmine Saleh, Sarah Mikhail Mohamed Abdellah; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Caroline Drees)