Real vs virtual
As deputies fight to find somewhere to sit in the packed newly elected People's Assembly there's plenty of room outside in Egypt's first alternative parliament, writes Gamal Essam El-Din
On Sunday President Hosni Mubarak will deliver a keynote speech before the newly-elected People's Assembly and Shura Council. The 780 deputies of the two chambers expected to attend the meeting will be joined by journalists, media people and other guests.
In his address, Mubarak is expected to focus on completing the implementation of his election platform ahead of next year's presidential poll scheduled for the fall.
When he was elected in 2005 Mubarak vowed to build 1,000 factories across Egypt. He also pledged to build one million, low-cost housing units for youth and to extend health insurance to cover all Egyptians. The Cabinet is expected to soon endorse a draft law on comprehensive health insurance.
Other draft laws, including decentralising the system of local administration and facilitating the elections of boards of professional syndicates, are also expected to be tackled in Mubarak's address.
The newly-elected People's Assembly held a procedural session on Monday at which Fathi Sorour was elected as speaker for the 21st consecutive time. Sorour won 505 votes out of 506. He was opposed by Mohamed Abdel-Aal, chairman of the Social Justice Party, who received a single vote. Zeinab Radwan and Abdel-Aziz Mustafa were elected as deputy speakers.
The inclusion of 64 women-only seats in the incoming assembly means the number of deputies has increased from 454 to 518. The numbers left many MPs, including some cabinet ministers, unable to find a place to sit.
Monday's procedural meeting was dominated by the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) which now controls 420 -- around 84 per cent -- of seats, not taking into account the 53 independents who were originally NDP members but contested the elections away from the party ticket. Most of these independents sat on the left of the assembly's podium, occupying the seats which in the last parliament were used by leftist and Muslim Brotherhood representatives.
All of those given the floor to address the assembly in its first gathering belonged to the NDP. Sorour, who is also a member of the NDP's politburo, said he hoped the new assembly would become a landmark in the 144-year history of the Egyptian parliament. He urged opposition MPs to carry out their role of serving the nation without violating either the rules of the constitution or the assembly's internal regulations.
"As you all know I have a lot of respect for the opposition," he told MPs. "A key part of my job is to give the floor to opposition deputies as many times as possible in order to deepen the process of democratisation." He did not, however, open the floor to opposition deputies at the procedural session.
Not that he was spoilt for choice. Opposition deputies form just three per cent of the new assembly.
Four belong to the leftist Tagammu Party, while four smaller opposition parties won one seat each. Both the Muslim Brotherhood and the Wafd pulled out of the elections two days after the first round on 28 November. The liberal-oriented Wafd Party froze the membership of its six candidates who secured seats in the first round having decided to refuse formal representation in a parliament that it believes is the result of a flagrantly rigged poll
Opposition parties have taken Ahmed Ezz, the NDP's secretary for organisational affairs, to task for orchestrating what they argue was a fraudulent ballot.
Ezz has promised that "the NDP will respect opposition and independent MPs and give an ear to their arguments."
"We respect objective discussion of issues and urge the opposition to keep away from fruitless debates which lead to nothing," he said.
While the NDP dominated parliament's opening session former MPs and opposition leaders were busy planning an alternative parallel parliament. During a protest in front of the building of the State Council they denounced Ezz for his allegedly "malicious intentions" and "wicked plans".
Mustafa Bakri, a journalist and former MP, described the newly-elected People's Assembly as "a parliament that expresses the will of the NDP and its elite". The parallel parliament will, in contrast, "enjoy the support of all the Egyptian people".
Monday's announcement of the parallel parliament followed a series of meetings between representatives of a broad array of political movements that aim to discredit the new assembly.
On Sunday they staged a demonstration in front of the prosecutor-general's office alongside members of Kifaya and several other dissent groups including Mohamed El-Baradei's National Assembly for Change (NAC) and the 6 April Movement. Gamal Zahran, a former independent MP, explained that the unofficial parliament will comprise 118 former MPs who ran in the 28 November election and lost.
News of the announcement of the so-called parallel parliament reached the People's Assembly as MPs were taking the constitutional oath, provoking furious reactions from NDP deputies.
Abdel-Ahad Gamaleddin, the NDP's parliamentary spokesman, told Al-Ahram Weekly that "this so-called parallel parliament is just a showy attempt by some opposition figures to retain their place in front of the television cameras".
Hazem Hamadi, NDP MP and a former police officer, insisted that "the idea is the invention of a gathering of politically bankrupt opposition figures".
Independent political observers see the creation of the so-called parallel parliament as -- in the words of Al-Ahram analyst Amr El-Shobaki -- "a result of the deep rift which has polarised the nation into two contrasting camps, the NDP majority against an embattled opposition".
"The creation of a parallel parliament -- in the same way parallel student unions and parallel syndicates were created in past years -- shows how deeply some despair of ever achieving reform through official channels."
Not that El-Shobaki holds out much hope for the initiative.
"What we know of the Egyptian opposition is that it suffers from short breath, is incapable of sustained coordination, and its leading members have an unhealthy appetite for self-publicity. Things could be back to normal very soon."