As Egypt’s newly elected Parliament convened for the first time on Monday, graphic designer Abeer Saad stood on a nearby street, part of a chain of protesters holding a long banner made of Egyptian flags sewn together. “We went to the street and asked people to write their demands on the flags,” explained Saad. “Now we’re here to bring those demands to the new Parliament.” The flags’ hand-written messages read: “A strong economy,” “To be respected as a citizen,” “Concern for the poor,” “Clean Egypt from corruption,” “A better life for my son.”
The Egyptian Parliament, which under Hosni Mubarak did little more than rubber-stamp laws proposed by the president, is now the country’s only democratically legitimate institution. It faces sky-high expectations, from eradicating corruption and police abuse and fixing Egypt’s stalled economy to selecting the committee that will write a new Constitution and overseeing the country’s transition from military to civilian rule.
The assembly is dominated by the political party of the once-banned Islamist group the Muslim Brotherhood. Its Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) has 47 percent of seats. A new party representing ultra-orthodox Islamists holds another 28 percent.
The remaining quarter of Parliament is divided among liberal, secular leftists and independent members. A handful of women make up about 1 percent of the assembly. Very few parties—religious or secular—promoted them as candidates. “Women have been marginalized for a long time,” said Saad. But, said fellow protester Nagwa El Ashwal: “We will work with society and try to change the culture, to change how people look at women, to show women can do anything, that they can be in Parliament or run ministries.”
Aside from the low profile of women, the parliamentary elections were marred by many irregularities and by the widespread use of religion during campaigning. But local and international election observers have described them as a step forward and as generally valid.
Now parliamentarians will have to show the Egyptian people they are making progress solving the country’s ills and to appease revolutionary groups who say little has changed in the year since Mubarak was ousted from power.
“Anyone who imagines Parliament will bring an end to street protests ... is dreaming,” said liberal-independent member of Parliament Amr Hamzawy. Indeed, about a half-dozen different marches converged on Parliament today. In one, protesters wore paper masks with the faces of some of the about 1,000 Egyptians who were killed in the revolution and in protests since.
Most marches were unable to actually reach Parliament, which stands a few blocks away from the world-famous Tahrir Square. The area, which was the site of deadly crackdowns by the Army and police against protesters at the end of last year, is heavily fortified, its streets packed with security forces and blocked off by giant cement walls.
“This doesn’t look any different than under Mubarak,” a young man said loudly and sarcastically to his friends as a crowd squeezed slowly through barbed wire and riot police to reach the Parliament. “Wow, this is the democracy we’re going to be celebrating?”
But the opening session gave a glimpse of how lively, not to say contentious, parliamentary politics may be in the new Egypt. Members of Parliament had to be reprimanded time and again for making their own caveats and additions to their oath of office. Islamist members swore to respect the country’s laws and Constitution “as long as they don’t contradict God’s law.” Others said they would protect Egypt’s security and the people's interests, and quickly added, “and fulfill the goals of the revolution.”
One member held up a poster saying, “Thank you to the martyrs of the revolution. We won’t sell your blood.” Dozens of members wore bright yellow sashes emblazoned with “No to military trials for civilians,” a reference to the fact that the Army tried at least 12,000 civilians in summary military courts since it took power.
More chaos broke out when the house prepared to elect its speaker. The Freedom and Justice’s candidate, Saad Katatni, was a shoo-in. But other candidates and their supporters stormed the central podium, demanding the chance to introduce themselves to the assembly and denouncing the Brotherhood’s party as undemocratic.
After he was elected to the speaker’s position, Katatni announced that “the revolution continues” and celebrated “the democracy that has been missing from this hall for so long.” He called for cooperation and dialogue among all political forces to meet the challenges of the transitional period. But the FJP’s dominance has many concerned.
“There is a complete monopoly of Parliament by the FJP,” complained Rawi Camel-Toueg, a leading member of the Free Egyptians, a liberal party founded by Christian business mogul Naguib Sawiris that will be part of the opposition.
The selection of the committee that will write the new Constitution, which will stipulate the role of religion in public life and legislation—as well as laws that affect women’s rights and laws governing freedom of expression—will be contentious, Camel-Toueg believes. That’s because “there is no middle in Egypt’s politics,” said Hamzawy, the parliamentarian. “We need to find the middle.”
The priority, he hopes, will be a return to full civilian rule. The Army has signaled it wants to negotiate special privileges and protections—immunity from prosecution for Army abuses, no civilian oversight of the Army budget—before its exit from power. Katatni’s only mention of the Army in his opening speech was to thank the armed forces for organizing clean parliamentary elections; many here fear that those negotiations will take place between the generals and the Muslim Brotherhood behind closed doors. “We need to put the Army in its natural place, as part of a democratic system,” said Hamzawy.