In Egypt, Islamists Take Control Of A New Parliament

Jan 23, 2012
Originally published on January 23, 2012 6:16 pm

Egypt's Islamists formalized their new stature on Monday as the first freely elected Parliament in six decades held its inaugural session in Cairo.

The session was broadcast live on Egyptian state television and was largely spent swearing in the 508 members, most of whom belong to the Muslim Brotherhood and ultraconservative Salafist movement.

But outside the Parliament, not everyone was celebrating.

Even before the lawmakers could get down to business, many among the hundreds of Egyptians gathered outside Parliament made it clear they expected a lot from the new assembly.

There were demands for higher wages. There were cries for justice for the many hundreds of protesters killed by police and soldiers. And there were warnings to Islamist lawmakers not to oppress Egyptians as the previous regime had.

That prompted arguments and scuffles with some pro-Islamist demonstrators, who had come to cheer their new legislators.

One of those celebrating was Mohammed Salama, a 30-year-old English teacher from the northern town of Mansoura, who proudly flashed his Freedom and Justice Party membership card.

The party grew out of the Muslim Brotherhood, which controls nearly half the seats in the new Parliament. Its secretary-general was elected speaker.

But Salama says that doesn't mean the brotherhood should dominate the parliamentary agenda, which includes appointing a panel to draft Egypt's new constitution. "I think all the Egyptian members of the Parliament should unite together for the development of Egypt," he says.

Islamist Supporters Want Change

Nevertheless, many supporters of the Islamists are demanding that Parliament change Egyptian law to reflect the conservative religious values of the majority.

One such person is 57-year-old Mervat Moharam. She says lawmakers must revise current family law to reflect Islamic norms, like giving fathers greater custody rights and lowering the age when girls can marry.

One Salafist supporter, Mohammed Yousef, predicts the Islamist-dominated Parliament won't go far enough to make Islamic law, or Shariah, the law of the land: "We have previous experiences with similar Parliaments in other parts of the world. None of those councils managed to institute Shariah into ... day-to-day life. None of them," he says.

That sort of talk worries protester Dua el-Keshef, a 19-year-old Cairo University student. Like many of her generation, she fears that the Islamists will ultimately try to silence the youth movement that spearheaded last January's revolution.

She argues this Parliament is no different from the ones under former President Hosni Mubarak, where one faction ended up making all the decisions.

Keshef adds the revolution has failed to deliver the freedom Egyptians deserve.

That message is one many protesters are expected to take to the streets in Cairo and across Egypt on Wednesday — the first anniversary of the revolution that ousted Mubarak and swept the Islamists to power.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

In Cairo today, Egypt's first freely-elected parliament in six decades held its inaugural session.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: Egyptian state television broadcast the hours-long session which was largely spent swearing-in the 508 members. Most of those members belong to Islamist parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood and the ultra-conservative Salafist Movement.

Outside the parliament, not everyone was celebrating, as NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Even before the lawmakers could get down to business, many among the hundreds of Egyptians gathered outside parliament made it clear they expected a lot from the new assembly.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

NELSON: There were demands for higher wages. There were cries for justice for the many hundreds of protesters killed by police and soldiers. And there were warnings to Islamist lawmakers not to oppress Egyptians as the previous regime had.

That prompted arguments and scuffles with some pro-Islamist demonstrators. They'd come to celebrate their new legislators.

One of those celebrating was Mohammed Salama, a 30-year-old English teacher from the northern town of Mansoura, who proudly flashed his Freedom and Justice Party membership card. The party is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, which controls nearly half the seats in the new parliament. Its secretary general was elected speaker.

But Salama says that doesn't mean the Brotherhood should dominate the parliamentary agenda, which includes appointing a panel to draft Egypt's new constitution.

MOHAMMED SALAMA: I think all the Egyptian members of the parliament should unite together for the development of Egypt. We are together.

NELSON: Nevertheless, many supporters of the Islamists are demanding parliament change Egyptian law to reflect the conservative religious values of the majority.

One is 57-year-old Mervat Moharam.

MERVAT MOHARAM: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: She says lawmakers must revise current family law to reflect Islamic norms, like giving fathers greater custody rights and lowering the age that girls can marry.

One Salafist supporter, Mohammed Yousef, predicts the Islamist-dominated parliament won't go far enough to make Islamic law, or Sharia, the law of the land.

MOHAMMED YOUSEF: We have previous experiences with similar parliaments in other parts of the world. None of those councils or assembly of people managed to institute Sharia into every day-to-day life, none of them.

NELSON: That sort of talk worries protestor Dua el Keshef. The 19-year-old Cairo University student fears, as many of her generation here do, that the Islamists will ultimately try to silence the youth movement that spearheaded last January's revolution.

DUA EL KESHEF: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: She argues this parliament is no different than ones under former President Hosni Mubarak, where one faction ended up making all the decisions.

KESHEF: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: Keshef adds the revolution has failed to deliver the freedom Egyptians deserve. That message is one many protesters are expected to take to the streets in Cairo and across Egypt on Wednesday, the first anniversary of the revolution that ousted Mubarak and swept the Islamists to power.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Cairo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.