It was a raucous beginning for Egypt’s first democratically elected parliament in 60 years.
Islamist lawmakers added religious references to the oath of office. Liberal lawmakers improvised too, adding a pledge to protect the “revolution” that ousted Hosni Mubarak. Some wore scarves with words protesting 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 Monday live on TV.
The opening session of parliament offered a stark contrast to past decades, when Egyptians knew that lawmakers 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 lawmakers did or said.
All that came to an end when the new legislature was elected in balloting staggered over six weeks beginning Nov. 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 Brotherhood had been banned for most of its 84-year history, legalised only after the uprising that began a year ago Wednesday 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 Mr. Mubarak are due to step down.
The lawmakers took office at a time when Egypt appears 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 lawmakers. 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.
“We want to remind all those inside the parliament that they are there as the fruit of freedom. Therefore, we need more freedom,” said poet and activist Abdel—Rahman Youssef, who said his advocacy group was concerned about calls by Islamists to place restrictions on the arts.
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 civilian 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 Monday.
Liberal and independent lawmakers 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 lawmakers 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 lawmakers, many of whom sported long beards, clerical turbans or flowing robes. Most of the women wore Islamic scarves.
Brotherhood lawmaker 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 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 Brotherhood.
Adel Musbah, a 30-year-old supporter of the ultraconservative Al—Nour party, said outside parliament that the protests organized by youth groups to demand that the military step down were pointless.
“Democracy brought the people inside now. Those inside were elected by the people,” he said. “Why are these coming to object? The people chose and it wasn’t them. They (protesters) are not the people. ... The only legitimacy is inside parliament.”
Adding to the tension were Brotherhood volunteers who escorted their lawmakers into the parliament to protect them from protesters.
“I want to make sure that my representatives are safe. I want to celebrate and make sure that no one ruins this atmosphere. There are many who want to ruin it,” said Fathy el-Sayed, a 35-year-old Brotherhood supporter.
Others waited with flowers to give to lawmakers they supported. They chanted religious songs to the beat of drums.
The families of protesters killed or wounded in the 18-day uprising and subsequent street protests were there too, calling for those responsible to be brought swiftly to justice.
“This parliament has no legitimacy. These elections were held under the military council’s eyes and anything under them has no legitimacy,” said Mary Daniel, sister of a protester killed at an October rally violently broken up by army troops.
Some of the protesters wore masks made of photographs of those killed or wounded by security forces in the past year.
“Down, down with military rule!” they chanted. “No military and no Brotherhood!”