x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Divisions of Egypt's parliament on display with improvised oaths

It was a raucous beginning for Egypt's first democratically elected parliament in 60 years.

A new Egyptian MP holds a scarf reading "No to military trials for civilians" during the opening of parliament in Cairo yesterday.
A new Egyptian MP holds a scarf reading "No to military trials for civilians" during the opening of parliament in Cairo yesterday.

CAIRO // It was a raucous beginning for Egypt's first democratically elected parliament in 60 years.

Islamist politicians added religious references to the oath of office. Liberal politicians improvised too, adding a pledge to protect the "revolution" that ousted Hosni Mubarak. Some wore scarves with words protesting against military trials for civilians. Shouting matches erupted. Hundreds massed outside, calling on the ruling generals to step down.

And millions of Egyptians watched it all unfold yesterday live on TV.

The opening session of parliament offered a stark contrast to past decades, when Egyptians knew that politicians came to office through deeply fraudulent elections engineered by the authorities, including the police, to ensure that the ruling party won comfortably. Apathetic and demoralised, they paid little or no heed to what members of parliament did or said.

All that came to an end when the new legislature was elected in balloting staggered over six weeks beginning on November 28. Islamists led by the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest and most disciplined political group in the nation of 85 million people, won about 70 per cent of the parliament's 508 seats.

The Muslim Brotherhood had been banned for most of its 84-year history, legalised only after the uprising that began a year ago today and toppled Mr Mubarak, Egypt's authoritarian ruler for nearly three decades.

The chamber's top priority will be to elect a 100-member panel to draft a new constitution, which will have to be put to a vote in a referendum. The next major step in the transition will be a presidential election, scheduled to be held before the end of June, when the generals who took over from Mubarak are due to step down.

The politicians took office at a time when Egypt appeared divided and near despairing. Since Mr Mubarak stepped down, the economy has been battered. Tenuous security has hit tourism hard and foreign currency reserves have rapidly dwindled.

Thousands of people of all political views demonstrated on side streets near parliament to voice a wide variety of demands and speak of expectations from the new wave of politicians. Some repeated calls for the ruling generals to step down, while others questioned the legitimacy of the chamber or voiced their opposition to the Islamists' policies.

Voices calling for the military to immediately return to the barracks have intensified, with political activists accusing the generals of bungling the transition, torturing detainees and hauling 12,000 civilians before military tribunals for trial.

Many are frustrated by the waves of street protests, strikes and sit-ins preventing life from returning to normal. The generals have taken advantage of the disarray, stepping up a campaign portraying the revolutionaries as irresponsible agents of foreign powers while projecting themselves as Egypt's protectors and true patriots.

The divisions were on display both inside and outside parliament on Monday.

Liberal and independent politicians wore yellow scarves saying, "No to military trials for civilians". Some of them added to the text of the oath of office, pledging to "continue the revolution" or "to be loyal to the blood of its martyrs".

That led to politicians from the ultraconservative Salafi movement to do some improvising of their own. The oath ends with a pledge to respect the constitution and the law, but several of them added "God's law" or said "as long as there are no contradictions with God's law".

The addition of religious references pointed to the Salafis' intention to make good on election promises to impose a strict interpretation of Islam on the nation.

The Islamist character of the chamber was also shown in the attire of those in the building, many of whom sported long beards, clerical turbans or flowing robes. Most of the women wore Islamic scarves.

The Muslim Brotherhood politician, Saad El Katatni, a botany lecturer from the central province of Minya south of Cairo, was elected as speaker and sought to woo the revolutionaries.

"Our revolution continues and we will not rest until all the goals of the revolution are met and we avenge our martyrs," he said in an address that drew a standing ovation. "We will never betray the blood of our martyrs."

The Muslim Brotherhood won just under half of all seats, followed by the Salafis who won about a quarter. The liberal and left-leaning groups that organised the uprising got less than 10 per cent of the seats. Many of them were not as well prepared for the election as the Islamists, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood.