The arrest of two Nasserist MPs for allegedly inciting anti-US protests triggered a furious response in parliament. Gamal Essam El-Din reports
It was a hard week at the People's Assembly. Sunday began with a torrent of condemnation for the US-led war in Iraq in a day-long parliamentary debate that ended with an uproar over the arrest of two MPs, in violation of their parliamentary immunity.
Hamdin Sabahi and Mohamed Farid Hassanein, both Nasserist MPs, were arrested Sunday evening-- Sabahi as he was leaving his home, Hassanein while in hospital -- and placed in custody for 15 days pending investigation on a slew of charges. The pair participated in Friday's demonstrations during which they were both injured while trying to shield fellow protesters from blows by riot police.
According to a memorandum submitted by Justice Minister Farouk Seif El-Nasr to the People's Assembly on 23 March, Sabahi and Hassanein had incited an anti-US rally to attack police, chant anti-government slogans and commit acts of sabotage including torching a fire-fighting vehicle and vandalising the headquarters of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) and the Ramses Hilton hotel. "These subversive acts are criminal offences for which they have to be investigated by the prosecution," the memorandum said. It added that because Sabahi and Hassanein have parliamentary immunity as MPs, the Interior Ministry had to invoke article 99 of the constitution to bring them under investigation by the prosecution. "This article states that no MPs shall be subject to criminal prosecution without prior permission from the assembly except in cases where MPs are caught red- handed," the memorandum said. "The offences were even photographed and recorded by video," it added.
Another memorandum said Sabahi refused to be interrogated. Instead, it added, he asked to be taken to hospital to be treated for hepatitis. As for Hassanein, who is being treated for injuries he sustained during demonstrations, the memorandum said he acknowledged joining Sabahi in a rally against the US's war in Iraq and chanting anti-government slogans. Hassanein, according to the memorandum, said he had even encouraged anti-US protesters to demonstrate outside the People's Assembly and present its speaker a list of grievances to be submitted to President Hosni Mubarak.
No sooner had Sabahi and Hassanein been arrested and placed in custody than their fellow opposition MPs joined forces to ask for a parliamentary enquiry into the incident. On Sunday evening, MPs Khaled Mohieddin, Abdel-Azim El-Maghrabi and Ayman Nour were given the assembly floor to protest the moves against their colleagues. Each argued that the Interior Ministry had infringed upon the assembly's sovereignty with the arrests. They also vigorously contested the claim that the pair had been caught "red-handed". El- Maghrabi noted that Sabahi and Hassanein were arrested 48 hours after the march. "What took the Interior Ministry so long to arrest them if they were actually been caught in the act?" El-Maghrabi asked.
The three opposition MPs urged deputies of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) to join their protest, "because the arrest of two MPs without prior permission from the assembly will set a dangerous precedent for Egypt's parliamentary life." The last time an MP was arrested without parliament's approval was in 1978. Abul-Ezz El-Hariri, a leftist MP, was at that time accused of leading demonstrations against late President Anwar El- Sadat.
Hussein Megawer, NDP majority leader, responded, saying, "We can only sympathise with the arrested MPs." Fathy Sorour, speaker of the assembly, said the MPs were arrested at the request of the prosecutor general. "While the assembly does not have control over the judiciary, it has a deep respect for the prosecutor's judgment," Sorour said. He urged MPs not to participate in demonstrations. "You may express your outrage as you like in parliament." Angered by Sorour's remarks, 37 opposition and independent MPs walked out in protest.
Sabahi and Hassanein have lead numerous anti-government demonstrations and engaged in verbal clashes with Prime Minister Atef Ebeid.
Sabahi, 49, is a journalist who defected from the Arab Nasserist Party's ranks last year to form another party inspired by Nasserism called the Karamah (Dignity) Party. The Political Parties Committee and the courts rejected the party's registration application. Sabahi was arrested in 1998 for leading demonstrations against the liberalisation of landlord- tenant relationship for agricultural land.
Hassanein, 64, was almost referred to a parliamentary ethics committee for misconduct in February after calling on President Mubarak to dismiss Sorour, Ebeid and chairman of the assembly's Industry Committee, Amin Mubarak. Hassanein, subsequently apologised.
Discussion of the repercussions of the war dominated parliamentary debate on Saturday. Independent and opposition MPs called for the expulsion of the US, British and Spanish ambassadors in protest over the war. Ayman Nour, an independent MP, said US and British leaders should be tried as war criminals. Kamal Ahmed, a Nasserist MP, urged, "We should no longer consider the US a strategic ally. We should call it our strategic enemy." Muslim Brotherhood MPs urged the government to allow people to express their anger against the US in public rallies and marches.
NDP MPs were less concerned with the war against Iraq than by containing anti-war demonstrations. Megawer, Mostafa El-Fiki and Ahmed Abu Zeid warned citizens to guard against those who would incite them to commit subversive acts.
A statement issued by the assembly's General Committee said the war against Iraq is unjust and violates the principles and charter of the United Nations. "This war is also a flagrant example of the adoption of double standards in dealing with the issue of weapons of mass destruction. Iraq was forced to dispose of its weapons, while Israel has been permitted to maintain its arsenal," the statement said.
Opposition MPs criticised the statement, arguing that it was couched in diplomatic language so as not to criticise the US by name.