Egypt's first freely-elected parliament in decades holds inaugural session
By Leila Fadel,
CAIRO — The inaugural session of parliament opened on Monday, with representatives from Islamist parties filling just over 70 percent of its seats following the first free election in Egypt in six decades.
As legislators took their oaths, some snuck in phrases about the importance of Islamic law and others criticized the military rulers — both signs of sentiment among ordinary Egyptians.
Live television coverage of the 12-hour long session made clear the Islamist — and male — domination of parliament. Most members had beards of various lengths. Only a few women were in sight; about one percent of the parliament is female.
Outside, police in riot gear lined up to protect the area as protesters with differing messages filled the streets.
The chamber’s most important task will be to appoint a 100-member assembly that will write the constitution laying out the powers of the parliament, the future president and the state.
The strong Islamist presence in the People’s Assembly, the lower house of Egypt’s bicameral system, is indicative of the rise of political Islam since the revolts that shook the Arab World forced four autocrats from power. A revolt in Syria and unrest in Bahrain continue.
Islamists in Tunisia did similarly well in elections late last year and Libyan Islamists are expected to run strongly in parliamentary elections scheduled for later this year.“The era of exclusion is over,” said Mohammed Saad el Katatny, a leading member of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party who was chosen as parliament speaker Monday. “All the parties represented in parliament must have their share.”
Outside the parliament building, thousands of supporters of the relatively moderate Freedom and Justice Party, which won 47 percent of the seats, and the ultraconservative Salafist Nour Party, which took 25 percent, celebrated what they see as the first true sign of democracy.
“This is the first benefit of our revolution,” said Madeh Sayed Taha, 24, who came from work at a nearby luxury hotel. He is a staunch supporter of the Salafist party.
The clean-shaven young man woke up at the crack of dawn and sat outside the parliament building beginning at 7 a.m. to wait three hours for parliament to begin its session.
“My happiness dragged me here. This is the parliament that will stop the corruption that plagued us for decades,” he said.
As he spoke, people wearing paper masks of faces of slain protesters flooded into the crowd. “Down with military rule, down with the People’s Assembly,” they chanted.
The scene was a reminder of divisions over Egypt’s future. Some Egyptians have no faith that the parliament will be able to overrule the nation’s military officials, who assumed power on Feb. 11 when President Hosni Mubarak was ousted. Others worry that the deaths of anti-government protesters will be forgotten.
Liberals and leftists took fewer than 20 percent of the parliament’s seats. Many of their parties represented the youth activists who spearheaded last year’s uprising.
More than 1,000 people have been killed since the start of the Egyptian revolt on Jan. 25 last year, with as many as 100 slain by security forces since the military assumed power.
The anniversary of the start of the Egyptian revolt will be commemorated this week. Since that time the economy has faltered, and political activists accuse the military rulers of botching the transition by standing in the way of reform and committing human rights violations that rival Mubarak’s.
Women have been subjected to forced “virginity tests,” the hated emergency law has been expanded and more than 12,000 civilians have been convicted in hasty military court proceedings.
“What we’re experiencing now is the same as what we experienced under the former regime. One bloc is making all the decisions,” said Duaa Kashed, 19, referring to the Freedom and Justice Party. She stood outside the parliament chanting against military rule.
Just behind her, a young man yelled at Freedom and Justice Party supporters to take down the party flag and wave the Egyptian flag. Police in riot gear looked on and Egyptian soldiers stood on rooftops.
Inside the parliament hall, legislators took their oaths. Some Salafist legislators added wording promising “not to conflict” with Islamic law, others snuck in language about protecting the revolution and some wore yellow scarves, a symbolic color to call for the end of military trials for civilians.
Katatny of the Freedom and Justice Party was officially voted speaker of the parliament with a vote of 399 out of 503 legislators who voted. His leadership was expected after an agreement last week with other political parties.
Katatny’s new role in parliament culminates the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise. Under Mubarak, the organization was a marginalized and abused, allowed to exist only on a tight leash. Now, a member of its political wing will lead the parliament.
Katatny praised the military rulers for the electoral process and the police, widely hated here, for ensuring that the balloting was secure.
“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 gets all its demands,” he said. “We will avenge the martyrs with fair, quick, efficient trials and we will rebuild the new Egypt. A national, democratic, and modern Egypt.”
So far, only one police officer has been sentenced in absentia for the killing of protesters. Mubarak’s trial on charges of ordering the killings is still ongoing.
Two deputy speakers were also elected: Ashraf Thabet from the Salafist Nour Party and Mohammed Abdelalim Doud, from the liberal Wafd party.
Katatny read a statement from Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, stating that the military council handed over legislative and “supervisory” authorities.
Outside the parliament, Safaa Mohamed, 40, held a picture of her son Kamal Said Barakat. The 24-year-old was killed a year ago this week.
“I'm here to bring back the rights of my son," she said, referring to the prosecution of regime officials. "And if they don't give me my son's rights, I'll take them. I'll stay here and I'll die here."
Special correspondent Ingy Hassieb contributed to this report.
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