1st Parliament session shows Egypt's new political landscape

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 23, 2012 

CAIRO — Egypt's first elected Parliament since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak took office Monday, with several lawmakers tweaking their oaths of office or wearing sashes to reflect the newfound power of Islamists and the disenchantment with military rule since the popular uprising a year ago.

Live TV footage of Parliament's first session brought the election's Islamist victory and gender disparity to life: Wide shots showed a hall filled with bearded politicians, and hardly a woman in sight. Saad el Katatny, of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, was named the speaker as expected, but only after some eleventh-hour bickering that revealed the discord already brewing in the only elected body of Egypt's unfinished revolution.

"We announce to the Egyptian people and to the whole world that our revolution continues, and our minds and eyes will not rest until the revolution meets all its demands and avenges the martyrs with fair, quick and efficient trials," Katatny told the assembly after accepting the speaker's chair.

"We will rebuild a new Egypt. A national, democratic and modern Egypt."

Outside the Parliament building's tight security cordon, hundreds of Egyptians gathered to voice disparate demands of their new representatives. The 508-seat assembly's main charge is to lead the selection of drafters for a new constitution, but some legislators already have vowed to use their positions to challenge the ruling military council's grip on the transition to democracy.

The revolutionaries' No. 1 goal is transition from military to civilian rule, but the factions argue over when and how the hand-over should take place. For now, the generals have promised to transfer authority after presidential elections in June, but some revolutionary groups are pushing for an earlier transition, and they plan to use Wednesday's anniversary of the uprising's first protests to renew those calls.

Columns of riot policemen were on watch outside Parliament Monday, but the crowds stayed mostly peaceful. A few tense moments erupted, such as one squabble when Islamists unfurled a large flag with the Muslim Brotherhood's party logo and other protesters demanded that they fly only the Egyptian red, white and black national flag.

Separate marches crisscrossed the protest area, their rival chants commingling in an unintended illustration of the revolutionaries' disarray a year after they stood shoulder to shoulder in Tahrir Square to bring down Mubarak.

"Yes to Islamic government!"

"The people want a civil state!"

"Down with military rule!"

"Wake up, workers!"

Amid the ruckus, a slight, black-clad woman held up a poster of her son, a 24-year-old protester who was killed last Jan. 28 during the uprising. Safaa Mohamed, 40, said she wanted Parliament to give top priority to the prosecution of regime officials charged with ordering the use of lethal force.

"I'm here to bring back the rights of my son," she said, close to tears. "And if they don't give me my son's rights, I'll take them. I'll stay here and I'll die here."

The parliamentary session opened with a prayer for the "martyrs," the 1,000 or so protesters who were killed in the anti-Mubarak uprising and subsequent clashes with state security forces over the past year. The main agenda items were administering the oath of office and naming a speaker of Parliament, and both tasks drew emotional debate.

As legislators took the oath one by one, many took the opportunity to sneak in political messages aimed at the ruling generals or the millions of Egyptians watching from home. Several wore yellow sashes to demand an end to civilians facing trials before military courts.

One representative held up a sign that promised the blood of protesters wouldn't go in vain; another raised a placard calling for Mubarak to be tried in military court.

Many Islamists, especially the puritanical Salafists, began their oaths with a caveat that their participation was "not in conflict" with Shariah law. The wording spoke to a widening rift among the Salafists who are working within the political process and those who are boycotting the legislature because of beliefs that only God's laws, as revealed in the Quran, are relevant.

Organizers had little patience for the on-camera grandstanding and frequently interrupted the legislators, ordering them to stick to the standard oath. Lawmaker Mustafa el Naggar managed to say, "I swear to continue the revolution," before his microphone was cut.

The squabbling continued when it came time to name the speaker. Egyptian news media had widely reported a deal among the major political blocs to pick Katatny of the Freedom and Justice Party, whose coalition won 47 percent of parliamentary seats. The ultraconservative Salafists of the Nour Party came next, with 25 percent, trailed by a collection of smaller liberal or centrist blocs.

Disputes rose over Katatny's selection and grew so heated that state TV cut off the live feed during a protracted fight over whether the speaker nominees should introduce themselves before an internal vote. They did, eventually, and Katatny won by a landslide.

"What we're experiencing now is the same as we experienced under the former regime, where we have one bloc in the government making decisions for everything," complained protester Dua el Keshef, 19, referring to the Muslim Brotherhood's broad influence over the post-Mubarak political landscape.

Other protesters cautioned patience, saying that the new legislators deserved a fair chance at correcting the Mubarak regime's legacy of corruption, police brutality and widespread unemployment.

"I voted for this Parliament, and it was a fair and transparent election," said Medeh Said Taha, 24, who celebrated the election of a Salafist candidate from his rural hometown.

"And we know if they don't fulfill those promises, the square is always there and we can always go back."

(McClatchy special correspondent Mohannad Sabry in Cairo contributed reporting.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2012

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