Al-Ahram Weekly Online   20 - 26 November 2003
Issue No. 665
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A parliamentary pause

President Hosni Mubarak interrupted his speech during the opening of parliament yesterday owing to "severe flu", reports Gamal Essam El-Din

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A 30-minute interruption in President Hosni Mubarak's inaugural speech yesterday during the opening of the new parliamentary session left people glued to television sets or frantically tuning in to radio stations in an attempt to find out what was happening. Traffic came to a standstill in many downtown streets around the People's Assembly building which in turn caused gridlock elsewhere in the city as traffic police blocked streets, unsure whether Mubarak would return home or reappear in the chamber to continue his speech.

Mubarak eventually resumed his speech, joking with the applauding MPs that the interruption was "because I left home early in the morning".

While speaking about the impact of runaway population growth on public services such as education and health, President Mubarak coughed and pulled out a handkerchief to wipe perspiration from his brow. "May God protect you from this severe flu," he told MPs before leaving the podium to exit the hall to cries of "God is great... God protect you Mubarak" from the assembled MPs. The Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, was then shown on television praying to God "to save Mubarak from ill health".

During his absence from the chamber President Mubarak was joined by Prime Minister Atef Ebeid, Minister of Information Safwat El-Sherif, Minister of Defence Hussein Tantawi, Speaker of the People's Assembly Fathi Sorour and chief of his staff Zakaria Azmi. Gamal Mubarak, 40- year-old son of President Mubarak, was also present.

El-Sherif appeared on television shortly after the interruption, assuring viewers that the president was in good health. Mubarak had interrupted his speech, said the minister of information, owing to a severe bout of flu.

"The effects of the flu were compounded because President Mubarak had insisted that he would address parliament despite the fact that he was taking antibiotics and was fasting," El-Sherif said, indicating that the opening of parliament had deliberately been shortened and that it had initially been suggested that President Mubarak should deliver his speech in two stages, with an interval between. "The president, however, insisted that his speech be delivered in one go."

El-Sherif told Egyptian television that President Mubarak had decided to rest for several minutes, after which he decided to complete the speech. "I want to tell everyone that President Mubarak is in good health. The flu he caught is a condition we all pass through," he said.

It was originally planned that President Mubarak would deliver his inaugural speech on Sunday though the date was changed because of the flu.

Health Minister Awad Tageddin told the Middle East News Agency that Mubarak had first shown symptoms of flu on Saturday when his temperature rose to 39.5. His doctors, Tageddin said, had prescribed drugs and antibiotics and his health began to recover. Tageddin said that he had advised Mubarak to postpone his speech until after the Eid Al-Fitr but that the president had insisted to go ahead.

Mubarak devoted the largest portion of his speech to the issue of advancing democracy in Egypt. The process of democratisation, he told MPs, requires that a culture of democracy be promoted across society, deepening the ideals of partnership and dialogue. It also requires, he said, a code of ethics capable of providing an unambiguous framework capable of facilitating cooperation between the various political parties.

Mubarak called for amendments to the 1956 political rights law and the 1977 political parties law, arguing that NGOs, women and young people must assume a greater role in political life.

Egypt was well on the road to democratisation, the president said, after having consolidated press freedom, and extended the role of civil associations.

On the economy Mubarak urged the government to upgrade tax, custom and monetary policies to create a more favourable investment climate for local and foreign investors.

But before economic and political reforms could move further forward, the president said, five conditions would have to be met. Most notably the multi- party system must be strengthened, he said, and priorities clearly outlined in accordance with the nation's potentials. The market economy and civil society, he added, must also be strengthened. Mubarak also called for sufficient attention to be paid to the social impact of reforms and for greater openness to the world beyond Egypt's borders.

Mubarak concluded his speech by criticising the Israeli government for hard-line policies inimical to peace and urged that the occupation of Iraq be brought to an end in order to allow stability to prevail.

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