Egypt’s New Parliament Convenes Amid Concerns About Islamist Domination

January 24, 2012 - 5:28 AM
Egypt parliament

Egypt’s new parliament is addressed Monday, January 23, 2012, by its incoming speaker, Mohammed Saad el-Katatni of the the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. The parliament is dominated by Islamists, while women account for less than two percent of lawmakers. (AP Photo/Khaled Elfiqi, Pool)

(CNSNews.com) – Egypt’s newly elected post-Mubarak parliament held its inaugural session on Monday, a meeting characterized at times by boisterous scenes as the Muslim Brotherhood cemented its dominance of the legislature even as it pledged to promote democracy.

The veteran Islamist organization’s political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), won 47 percent of the 498 elected seats in the 508-seat chamber, and its secretary-general, Mohammed el-Katatni, was elected speaker.

The FJP also dominates key parliamentary committees, controlling the chairs of the committees on foreign affairs (FJP vice-chairman Essam Al-Erian), defense and national security (former Lt. Gen. Abbas Mukhaimar), religious affairs (Sheikh Sayed Askar), local government (Saber Abdul Sadek), housing (Ibrahim Abu Ouf), health and environment (Mohammed Beltagy), budget and planning (Saad Husseini), youth (Osama Yasin) and telecommunications and transport (Sabry Amer).

While the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) party had been expected to do well in the three-stage election held over a six-week period, the size of its victory surprised many observers, as did the showing of the even more radical Salafist Nour party, which garnered just under 25 percent of the vote.

The third-largest party, the nationalist Wafd (nine percent), has indicated its willingness to work with the MB’s FJP party, so the only real opposition to Islamists may come from the liberal Egyptian Bloc (seven percent) headed by the Free Egyptians Party, led by a Christian businessman.

Monday’s session visibly reflected the Islamist dominance, with beards and turbans in abundance. Women, meanwhile, will account for less than two percent of the lawmakers.

(During the previous era, only four women were elected to the lower chamber of parliament in 2005, but a last passed in 2009 created a 64-seat quota for women, with effect from elections held in late 2010 – just weeks before the uprising that brought President Hosni Mubarak.)

During the session, some Islamist lawmakers as they took the oath of office inserted a line making their pledge to respect Egypt’s law and constitution conditional on where it does not contravene “the law of Allah.”

The new parliament will appoint a 100-member body tasked with drafting a new constitution.

One of the key concerns for Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority relates to whether the new document will leave in place – or even toughen – article two of the last official constitution, drafted in 1971, which reads: “Islam is the religion of the state and Arabic is its official language. Principles of Islamic law (shari’a) are the principal source of legislation.”

A provisional constitution drafted last March by a committee set up on the orders of the military council that took over when Mubarak resigned kept article two intact.

The MB has indicated that it does not plan to Islamicize the constitute beyond retaining article two, while Nour wants to strengthen the article by replacing the word “principles” with “rulings.”

‘Jihad is our way’

Mideast expert Barry Rubin, director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center in Herzliya, Israel, predicted Monday that the MB will continue to be portrayed in Western media as moderate, especially as compared to the Salafists.

“Note that there is a big difference between actually being moderate and simply being patient, advancing step by step toward radical goals,” he wrote in an analysis.

The MB has pledged not to directly support a candidate in presidential elections currently scheduled for the middle of the year. (The military council has pledged to hand over power to an elected civilian authority on July 1.)

MB FJP logos

The logos of the Muslim Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party. (Images: Muslim Brotherhood/FJP)

It has also taken pains to soften its image. The FJP sports a logo depicting a stylized flower and the motto, “We hold good for Egypt.”

By contrast, the Brotherhood’s logo features crossed swords and a Qur’an, with the slogan “Make ready” (from the Qur’an’s sura 8:60 which reads “Make ready for them all thou canst of [armed] force and of horses tethered, that thereby ye may dismay the enemy of Allah and your enemy …” The MB logo sometimes appears with an Arabic motto translated, “Allah is our objective. The Prophet is our exemplar. The Qur’an is our law. Jihad is our way. Dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope.”

Critics suspect the MB’s new approach is designed primarily for Western consumption, to allay concerns about an Islamist takeover even as it inevitably pushes Egypt in that direction. Some point to material on the MB’s Arabic Web site – as opposed to its English-language one – including articles that extol jihad, according to the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), which translates Arabic media.

Some analysts say the MB is being pulled towards moderation and pragmatism by Egypt’s new circumstances, following decades of banning and state repression.

There are also differing opinions about reasons for Islamists’ strong showing in the election.

Egyptian writer Bassem Sabry, while acknowledging concerns about low female representation and the fact parliament “is now dominated by aging politicians from the conservative side of the political spectrum,” argued Monday that most Egyptians who voted for Islamists “didn’t do so because they wanted their country to turn into Afghanistan, as some have put it.”

Writing on the Cairo Review of Global Affairs Web site, Sabry offered reasons for voter support for Islamists beyond pure ideology, including the view that the MB was seen as “the only truly experienced and organized technocratic entity that could serve the country at this critical juncture.”

For some, religious politicians may be seen as less likely to become corrupt, Sabry said. For others, the candidates may have been known personally in their constituencies, through community or charity work.