The People's Assembly opened yesterday in confrontational mood with the Muslim Brotherhood deciding for the first time to field candidates for the posts of parliamentary speaker and deputy speakers. Brotherhood spokesman Saad El-Katatni challenged the incumbent for 17 years, NDP veteran Fathi Surour, for the post of speaker. Sorour won with 319 votes while Katani took 79 votes.Gamal Zahran, an independent MP also ran but won only six votes. Hussein Ibrahim, MP for Alexandria, and Mohamed El-Ganayni, MP for the Delta government of Qalioubiya, stood against NDP candidates Abdel-Aziz Mostafa and Zeinab Radwan as deputy speakers. Radwan and Mostafa kept their seats.
Since emerging as a major force in parliament the Brotherhood has been keen to play down any conflicts with the NDP over key parliamentary posts and has refrained from fielding its own candidates. That the tactic has now been scrapped is a reflection of the worsening relationship between the government and the largest opposition group in parliament.
Two of the group's leading figures, Mohamed Mursi and Essam El-Erian, were arrested in May and there are no signs they will be released any time soon. On 26 October the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a statement saying 800 members of the Muslim Brotherhood had been detained between March and mid-October, most for brief periods though 62 remain in custody, including Mursi and El-Erian.
The government then intensified its crackdown by barring Brotherhood leader Mahdi Akef from making a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia and intervening to prevent the group's candidates standing in labour and university student elections.
In response the Brotherhood is aiming to make parliament the arena for the ongoing battle and in a press conference on Monday El-Katatni said the Brotherhood's new "confrontational stand" aims to send several messages to the NDP.
"First," said El-Katatni, "the NDP should abandon its tactic of ostracising the opposition and accept that it must share power and positions in parliament."
The 2005 elections, he argued, significantly altered the status quo: with opposition and independent MPs now occupying 25 per cent of seats in parliament, it is no longer viable for the NDP to continue its monopoly of key assembly posts.
In the last session El-Katatni says Brotherhood MPs had been keen not to challenge Sorour over his position as speaker. "But the message seemed lost on him and he continued with a policy of sidelining opposition MPs. He is a very efficient man but in the end he places loyalty to the NDP above all other considerations."
The Brotherhood's decision to field a candidate against Surour should be viewed, says El-Katatni, as an objection to his performance rather than a war against him.
"If I were to win I would do my best not to ostracise NDP MPs and ensure that every member is treated on equal footing."
It is not clear whether Brotherhood MPs will also run for the chairmanship of the assembly's 19 committees. Last year Akram El-Shaer, a Brotherhood MP for Port Said, looked poised to be elected deputy chairman of the health committee only to be defeated in a re-run after NDP MPs were instructed to rally behind their candidate.
Leading Brotherhood MP Hamdi Hassan told Al-Ahram Weekly that "NDP heavyweights still like to ignore [the rise in Brotherhood members of parliament from 17 in 2000 to 88 in 2005] but after the crackdown they must know that the rules have to change and that for every action there is a reaction."
"Even if we were not able to win any of the assembly's three key posts, we have many tools to embarrass the ruling party and its government," he added.
Hassan said the Brotherhood and the opposition will join forces in calling for amendments to the assembly's 27-year-old internal regulations. "They were drafted in a way that prevents MPs from effectively scrutinising the government's performance and it is high time they changed."
Some regulations, such as Article 79, which requires cabinet ministers to report back to the assembly following their return from visits abroad, have never been enforced and Hassan is determined the situation must change.
Hussein Ibrahim revealed that the group's MPs will also be focusing more on human rights abuses in Egypt.
"We believe the reports conducted since 2004 by the National Council for Human Rights are a progressive step that must be discussed in open session," says Ibrahim, who also revealed the Brotherhood opposed stripping prominent opposition MP Talaat El-Sadat of membership of the assembly. El-Sadat, a nephew of late President Anwar El-Sadat, was last week sentenced to one year in jail.
"We have called on President Hosni Mubarak to pardon El-Sadat but it is unclear whether this will happen," says Ibrahim, who argues that in criticising domestic and foreign forces for their failure to prevent the assassination of his uncle, El-Sadat was only exercising his right to express opinions freely.
Hussein also said Brotherhood MPs will be questioning several cabinet ministers more closely, with Interior Minister Habib El-Adli at the top of their list.
"Thanks to this minister, Egypt's reputation for respecting human rights has sunk to a new low and it is time his violations were exposed." Ali Laban, a Brotherhood firebrand MP for the Delta Governorate of Gharbiya, caused an uproar when he urged the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Sheikh Mohamed Tantawi to issue a fatwa calling for the execution of Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif and Awqaf (religious endowments) Minister Hamdi Zaqzouq for approving the demolition of some mosques. The call was strongly condemned by many political factions.
The Brotherhood's ambitious tactics against cabinet ministers could easily founder given Sorour's 17-year experience in defusing opposition complaints and protecting ministers from criticism.
"Sorour is a quick-witted speaker who knows how to manipulate parliament... if he were to become the speaker of the American Congress he would be perfectly able to stifle any opposition from either the Democrats or Republicans," said one NDP MP who asked not to be identified.
Relations between the government of Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif and NDP MPs are currently strained and in their criticisms of cabinet ministers, the Brotherhood says it will count on the support of disaffected MPs from the ruling party. In a meeting with NDP Chairman President Hosni Mubarak, the party's MPs lashed out against Nazif and his government. Mubarak responded by asking Nazif to organise regular meetings with NDP deputies in order to hear their requests.
"We are the ones who are being asked to rubber stamp constitutional amendments and laws and we will need to get something in return," said one NDP MP.Al Ahram weekly du 9 - 15 November 2006 (http://weekly.ahram.org.eg)