CAIRO (Reuters) - Egypt’s parliament opened on Monday for the first time since a historic free election put Islamists in the driving seat after years of repression under deposed President Hosni Mubarak.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) was the biggest winner in the first free vote in decades. It has vowed to guide Egypt in the transition to civilian rule after generals took charge following the popular uprising that began on January 25 and ended with Mubarak’s ouster on February 11.
“I invite the distinguished assembly to stand and read the fatiha (Muslim prayer) in memory of the martyrs of the January 25 revolution ... because the blood of the martyrs is what brought this day,” said Mahmoud al-Saqa, 81, a member of the liberal Wafd party, who as oldest member of the house acted as speaker.
After commemorating with the silent prayer, each member read the oath of office. Some wore bright yellow sashes in protest against military trials of civilians.
One Islamist member, Mamdouh Ismail, read the oath that vows allegiance to the nation and its laws but added his own words “so long as it does not oppose God’s law,” prompting the speaker to tell him repeat it without his own addition.
The rise of the Islamists marks a sea change from Mubarak’s era when parliament was a compliant body stuffed with members of his National Democratic Party, which put loyalty and self-interest before religion or ideology.
The Brotherhood was officially banned but won some seats by running “independent” candidates.
Generals will remain in charge until after a presidential election in June when they have promised to hand over power, though many Egyptians suspect the army may seek to retain influence behind the scenes even after that.
“Today we resume the revolution. We have wasted a year. We have work to do,” Kamal Abu Etta, prominent labour union activist and member of the non-religious Karama party, said as he entered the building that was surrounded by police.
One of the first steps in Monday’s session of the lower house will be to elect a speaker, set to be the FJP’s nominee, Mohamed Saad el-Katatni. Elections to parliament’s upper house will be in February.
Although Islamists dominate, it is unclear whether they will form a single bloc in parliament, which will have a key role in drafting the new constitution by picking the 100-strong assembly that will draw up the new document. The Brotherhood has said it wants to be inclusive and ensure all voices in Egypt are heard.
“We will cooperate with everyone: with the political forces inside and outside parliament, with the interim government and with the military council until we reach safety heralded by presidential election,” said Essam el-Erian, deputy FJP head.
Youth movements, who put national pride before religion when they galvanised Egyptians in the 18-day revolt against Mubarak, staged a small demonstration outside to ensure protesters killed in the uprising were not forgotten.
“We do not contest the popular mandate of parliament, but it better deliver on the rights of martyrs and wounded. We fear political parties may vie for political gain and ignore the youth,” activist Mohamed Fahmy said before the session began.
Liberals were pushed into third place behind the FJP and ultraconservative Islamist Salafis led by the al-Nour party, the surprise runners up. The FJP says it controls almost half the 498 elected seats, with a few re-runs still to be held.
Monday’s session marks the revival of an assembly that in the early 20th century was a vibrant forum for the nation’s aspirations and filled with deputies who vied with the monarch and Egypt’s British overlords.
Parliament’s independent voice was extinguished after a 1952 coup that toppled the king and swept military-backed autocrats to power. Mubarak was a former air force commander and the ruling military council is now led by Mubarak’s defence minister for 20 years, Mohamed Hussein Tantawi.
“The Egyptian military seems at this point determined to carve out an exception to democratic rule for its area of power and interest,” Human Rights Watch’s executive director Kenneth Roth said on Sunday at the launch of the group’s annual report in Cairo.
Parliamentarians see the new assembly as bringing Egypt a step closer to ending military rule.
“We say that we respect and appreciate the army but the military council must be held accountable for any mistakes ... No one is above accountability,” the Brotherhood’s general guide, Mohamed Badie, said last week.
But the Islamist group has also previously said it does not seek a confrontation with the military.
Some analysts have suggested the army will not fully abandon politics unless the Brotherhood and other prominent political parties offer guarantees that it will not face legal retribution over the killing of protesters.
Mubarak, 83, is now on trial for his role in the deaths of 850 people during the uprising. Scores of people have been killed in sporadic violence since then, including demonstrations against army rule in November and December.
Additional reporting by Tamim Elyan; writing by Edmund Blair; editing by Philippa Fletcher