Egypt’s first free parliament in six decades got to work on Monday, with
Islamists holding by far the most seats and opponents comparing their grip on
the chamber to that enjoyed by the now-defunct party of deposed president Hosni
With almost half the seats in the assembly, the Muslim
Brotherhood is promising to cooperate with the generals who took power last
February when Mubarak was overthrown, in their transition to civilian
The generals will remain in charge until after a presidential
election in June when they have promised to hand over power. Many Egyptians
suspect the army may seek to retain influence behind the scenes after
Thousands of protesters who fear a deal between the Islamists and
the army to carve up power cried “down with the military government” behind a
police cordon near the parliament building, a reminder to those trying to
rebuild Egypt’s state institutions of the power of the street.
will have the lead role in appointing a 100-strong assembly that will draw up a
new constitution for Egypt. On Monday, The New York Times quoted a Western
diplomat as saying the military and the Brotherhood have settled on the broad
outlines of the distribution of powers to be delineated in the
That agreement, the paper reported, includes the creation of a
mixed presidential parliamentary government, a legal system no more religious-
based than the existing one and guarantees on freedom of worship and
The deal would reportedly leave in place an existing
constitutional clause declaring Islamic jurisprudence as the main source of
Egyptian law, but not modify that clause to refer to more specific rules of
Islamic law as some Islamist lawmakers had sought.
The diplomat said a
mixed presidential-parliamentary system would allow parliament to oversee
domestic matters, while leaving the president in charge of more contentious
foreign policy issues such as relations with Israel. The Brotherhood has said it
would not field a candidate in this year’s presidential elections.
deal also reportedly includes a compromise on the thorny issue of the defense
budget that would see a limited number of officials charged with determining
outlays to the traditionally powerful military.
Jon Alterman, director of
the Middle East Program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and
International Studies, said that if true, the deal reflects the usual back-room
deals of democratic politics.
“That’s how politics work – people reach
understandings in private, some of which are made public,” he
“That’s politics – whether American, Israeli or
“I’d be very surprised if there’s anything like a formal deal,
but I’d also be very surprised if the two parties don’t talk to one another,”
Alterman said. “It’s in both of their interests to neither surprise nor corner
the other, because each has tools that it can call on that would greatly harm
the interests of the other.” On Sunday, the US Embassy in Cairo tweeted that the American ambassador and
other US officials had met with the Nour party, an adherent to the hardline
Salafi Islamist movement and the second-biggest winner in parliamentary
Last year the US administration modified a long-standing ban
on official meetings with Egyptian Islamist groups, and high-level State
Department representatives have met with Brotherhood figures on several
occasions since Mubarak’s overthrow.
Alterman said the meeting with the
Nour officials is in line with that policy.
“The US policy has been to
meet with all parties in parliament,” he said. “While meeting the Salafis
represents a change, it’s not a change in the policy, which is to meet with all
parties in the parliament.”
Monday’s session began in a somber mood as
parliament’s acting speaker – its oldest member was automatically chosen –
invited deputies to hold a silent prayer in memory of the hundreds who died in
the uprising that ousted Mubarak.
“The blood of the martyrs is what
brought this day,” speaker Mahmoud al-Saqa, 81, said. Some deputies wore yellow
sashes in protest of the army’s policy to try thousands of civilians in military
The session became more raucous when one Islamist legislator,
Mamdouh Ismail, read the oath that vows allegiance to the nation and its laws
but added his own words, “so long as it does not oppose God’s law,” prompting
the speaker to tell him to repeat it without his addition.
exchange erupted later as deputies worked on their first task of electing a
One candidate opposing Brotherhood nominee Mohamed
Saad al-Katatni sought to introduce himself to the chamber, a move the
Brotherhood opposed in a swift vote. Katatni, secretary-general of the
Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), was then appointed.
recent elections, non- Islamists were pushed into third place behind the Freedom
and Justice Party and the Salafis, the surprise runners-up. The FJP says it
controls almost half the 498 elected seats, with a few re-runs to be held, but
would be guided by a spirit of compromise.
“We will cooperate with
everyone: with the political forces inside and outside parliament, with the
interim government and with the military council until we reach safety heralded
by a presidential election,” said Essam el-Erian, deputy FJP
Parliament’s independent voice was extinguished after a 1952 coup
that toppled the king and swept military-backed autocrats to
Mubarak was a former air force commander and the ruling military
council is now led by the man who was Mubarak’s defense minister for 20 years,
Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi.
Reuters contributed to this