Thursday marked one month since Egypt's parliament held its first session after the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak. While democracy experts know that it is far too soon to judge if Egypt's experiment in democracy will succeed, looking at the parliament’s first weeks may give us an idea of how the process could look in the weeks and months ahead.
The outlook is not promising. In the first month, parliamentary sessions have ranged from comical to disturbing. In the most joked-about episode, conservative Salafi Member of Parliament (MP) Mamdouh Ismail stood up mid-session and began a call to prayer.
The first session of the Egyptian People's Assembly was held on January 23, two days before the first anniversary of the January revolution. Islamists dominated at the polls: The Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) won 47 percent of seats, and the more conservative Salafi al-Nour party won over 24 percent. Freedom and Justice MPs took leadership positions on 11 of the parliament's 19 committees. Saad al-Katatni, who led the Brotherhood's minority bloc in the 2005 parliament, was elected the new Speaker of Parliament.
After one month, it appears the parliament's Islamist majority is willing to push through its agenda and overwhelm the dissenting minority. A troubling example involved minority MP Ziad al-Eleimy, who criticized Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) Chief Hussein Tantawi using a not-so-polite Egyptian proverb. The Islamist majority, fearful of damaging its relations with the SCAF, referred al-Eleimy to the Ethics Committee. Perhaps more concerning was when demonstrations outside the Interior Ministry turned violent. Islamist MPs insisted on labeling protesters as "thugs" and claimed the ministry had the right to defend itself. MPs who tried to criticize the crackdown were shouted down during their statements. The Islamist majority would not accept a narrative that differed from their interpretation and proved ready to intimidate the minority, a troubling precedent for a country subjected to 30 years of single-party rule under Mubarak's National Democratic Party (NDP).
Some MPs also criticized Saad al-Katatni's leadership as speaker, and un-flatteringly compared him to former NDP Speaker Fathy Sorour. Like Sorour, al-Katatni is accused of being too strict when applying the internal regulations of the People's Assembly. The Association of Parliamentary Researchers reportedly urged al-Katatni to scrap parliament’s 33-year-old regulations that give the speaker broad powers. Al-Katatni said he planned to amend those regulations in time. Minority MPs also charge that the speaker allows his FJP colleagues more time to speak.
Islamists do not always operate as a unified bloc. After the so-called “Port Said Massacre” of Fabruary 1, where over 70 people were killed in a soccer riot, Speaker al-Katatni pledged to investigate the violence. His deputy, al-Nour MP Ashraf Thabet, headed the inquiry, but his report blamed lax security and overly-aggressive soccer fans. These findings were widely criticized by MPs who wanted to blame the SCAF, and deepened the suspicion among pro-democracy activists that the Islamists had cut a deal with the military rulers. Some Freedom and Justice MPs expressed their dissatisfaction with the report but were content to condemn Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim.
While parliament has some accomplishments, such as raising compensation for families of those killed during the revolution, its powers remain speculative. The People’s Assembly plays a minor role in the half-dozen or so crises threatening to destabilize the nation, and until its powers are defined in a new constitution it will be an observer to developments in Egypt. On Tuesday, Egypt's judiciary added a new twist: A judge ruled that the parliament’s convoluted election law violated the constitution. If upheld by the Supreme Constitutional Court, the decision could render the current parliament legally illegitimate. This, in turn, would delegitimize parliament’s selection of the committee tasked with writing the next constitution.
At a Brookings Institution panel, Shadi Hamid claimed that the elections proved Egyptians wanted a larger role for Islam in political life. So far, the Brotherhood has not forced the radically anti-western social and foreign policy legislation some observers fear, but they certainly could with their massive parliamentary presence. There may be reason for optimism: FJP sources claimed to have reached out to liberal blocs with the aim of forming a coalition government. These claims were denied by liberals, but refusing the FJP could push them into a coalition with the conservative Salafis. Freedom and Justice MPs should seek out liberals by convincing them of the FJP’s commitment to upholding human and minority rights.
The U.S. is only beginning to realize that the Islamist domination of Egypt’s parliament is not the main threat to the country’s democratic transition. Rather, the proven threat is the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, whose troubled stint in office is thoroughly documented. Suffice it to say that no true democratic transition can occur while the generals remain in power.
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