Egypt's military rulers announced Monday that the country's hated emergency laws will be lifted before parliament elections set for September, the latest move to ease harsh restrictions under the ousted regime of President Hosni Mubarak.
The laws have been in place since 1981, when Mubarak took power. They give police near-unlimited powers of arrest and allowed indefinite detentions without charges. The old regulations also sharply curtailed rights to demonstrate and organize politically.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which is ruling the country now, also said Mubarak and his family are under house arrest. The statement apparently aimed to defuse rumors that Mubarak had left for Saudi Arabia for medical treatment.
In another move to lighten restrictions, the council reduced the nightly curfew to three hours, from 2 a.m. to 5 a.m.
This reflects improvement in the security situation after a wave of acts of thuggery, armed theft and chaos after police were pulled off the streets on Jan. 28. Up to now the curfew has been in effect from midnight to 6 a.m.
In another landmark move, the council issued a decree easing conditions for forming new political parties.
This overturns Mubarak's system giving his party a virtual veto over creation of new parties, effectively stifling new groupings.
Under the new decree, new parties must have 5,000 members in 10 provinces with 300 members in each of them in order to gain recognition. Egypt has 29 provinces.
The new order gives citizens the right to establish parties by notifying a newly established judicial committee. The party would be recognized 30 days after sending the notification, if the committee has not issued objections.
There are limitations. The council banned the formation of political parties on religious grounds and those discriminating against citizens based on their race or faith.
The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest opposition movement, outlawed for half a century, said it is planning to establish a party.
Hossam Tamam, a researcher in Islamic movements, said that the Muslim Brotherhood can easily get around the restriction by eliminating articles in its political agenda which ban women and Copts from running.
Tamam said that the restriction appears to be aimed at fundamentalist Islamic groups like the Salafi movement from running. "I think the challenge here is to ban the Salafi movement and its sisters, whose agenda contradicts with basic rights of citizenship," he said.
The military council does not make officials available for comment.
Under Mubarak, parties needed approval of the Committee of Parties affiliated to the Shura Council, dominated by his National Democratic Party. Dozens of requests for new parties were rejected over the years, and some existing parties were banned as well. Only a few small opposition parties were permitted, giving Mubarak's party free rein in Egypt for three decades.
Earlier this month, Egyptians voted in favor of amending key constitutional articles to allow for free general elections, enabling independent candidates to run for president _ lifting another Mubarak-era restriction.
While parliament elections are set to be held in September, no date has been determined for presidential elections.
The new president and parliament will be expected to lead the process of wider change, possibly including a new constitution. Many of those who led the wave of popular protests that ousted Mubarak on Feb. 11 want a radically new constitution that would break the total control the presidency held over government during Mubarak's rule.
There is also concern among the reformers that the early election date could work in favor of existing groups, especially the Muslim Brotherhood and the former ruling party.