Questions, but few answers
Interpellations submitted in the People's Assembly were dominated by growing tensions with the US and accusations against the military rulers, reports Gamal Essam El-Din
Hopes were high following the election of Egypt's first post revolutionary People's Assembly that parliament would at last begin to exercise a meaningful supervisory role. The results, so far, have been disappointing, with a mere 22 interpellations -- questions that must be answered by ministers -- being tabled since 23 January.
On 19 February People's Assembly speaker Saad El-Katatni argued that the numbers did not matter as much as the quality of questions asked.
"The interpellations submitted deal with serious issues and the assembly accepts no restrictions on supervising cabinet ministers," said El-Katatni.
Eight of the 22 interpellations submitted are addressed to Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, chairman of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and Egypt's de-facto ruler. If he answers them, it will be the first time Egypt's head of the state has faced parliamentary questioning.
Most of the interpellations directed at Tantawi have been submitted by liberal-oriented MPs, including Ziad El-Oleimi, a member of the Egyptian Socialist Democratic Party and a leading participant in the 25 January Revolution. El-Oleimi was the subject of a parliamentary inquiry this week after being accused of insulting Tantawi and leading Salafi preacher Mohamed Hassan. During a visit to Port Said El-Oleimi is said to have told a gathering that Tantawi was a "donkey" and rebuked Hassan for urging Egyptian citizens, even sellers of turnips, to donate money to make up for any cut in US aid to Egypt. El-Oleimi refused to apologise for his remarks on Monday and was referred to the assembly's disciplinary committee.
Three of the interpellations target Tantawi, alongside Prime Minister Kamal El-Ganzouri and Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim, taking all three to task for the proliferation of assaults faced by both Egyptians and foreigners in recent months. "These dangerous acts are the result of negligence on the side of the executive authority," said a summary of five interpellations.
Another two interpellations are directly aimed at Tantawi in his capacity as minister of defence. Submitted by Ahmed Said, chairman of the Free Egyptians Party, and Ihab Ramzi, a member of the Horreya (Freedom) Party, an offshoot of ousted president Hosni Mubarak's now disbanded National Democratic Party (NDP), they both blame SCAF for the 1 February football stadium massacre in Port Said.
In a meeting held with senior parliamentary figures on 14 February Tantawi said it was not the responsibility of the army to ensure domestic security. "This is the role of the police forces which must be strengthened," said Tantawi. "The role of the army is to defend Egypt's national security."
Tantawi added that for two months immediately following the 25 January Revolution the army had shouldered the responsibility of domestic security.
"We arrested thousands who escaped prison during the revolution and defended the camps of the Central Security Forces," said Tantawi. "What we now need is to give the police a chance to recover. We do not believe that the Interior Ministry includes elements that are conspiring against the state."
Tantawi does, however, believe that "some foreign forces hatch malicious conspiracies against Egypt and want its army plunged into domestic affairs in order to infiltrate the country's borders and harm national security." He cited the Port Said massacre as one such conspiracy.
MP Mustafa Bakri asserted that "following violent clashes which hit the area surrounding the buildings of the Cabinet Office and the People's Assembly last December, during which the army was obliged to use force against the attackers and the military police was accused of brutality, SCAF leaders began to feel they were being dragged into the fray by some hostile youth groups like 6 April movement in a bid to tarnish their image and this was reason enough not to undertake any more internal security operations."
Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim faces 10 interpellations relating to the Port Said massacre and the proliferation of violent crime. Ibrahim was summoned for questioning by parliament last week after more than 120 MPs demanded a vote of no-confidence in him. A joint committee comprising members of the People's Assembly National Defence and Youth Affairs Committees asked Ibrahim to restructure the Interior Ministry and cleanse it of counter-revolutionary elements. They also demanded former president Hosni Mubarak be remanded in Tora prison instead of the International Medical Centre where he is currently held.
Ibrahim replied that he has already begun restructuring the ministry.
Deputies of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party have submitted a list of more than 200 police officers whom they accuse of torture during the Mubarak regime to Ibrahim.
Anwar Esmat El-Sadat, chairman of the liberal Reform and Development Party and head of the People's Assembly Human Rights Committee also submitted an interpellation for Tantawi asking why the army's National Service Apparatus and civil production undertaken by military factories operate outside the audit and parliamentary supervisory regimes.
El-Sadat's question comes at a time when SCAF is being widely criticised in the American press for accepting billions of dollars of military aid while imposing a crackdown on civil society organisations which receive a tiny fraction of that sum from Washington.
In a meeting with senior MPs on 14 February Sami Anan, chief of military staff and deputy chairman of SCAF, said "most of what is published in the American press about annual assistance to Egypt is entirely unfounded". "The truth is that annual US military assistance is not the $1.3 billion claimed by the American press but stands at just $500 million, most of which is used to procure spare parts from America. None of it lines the pockets of military staff."
US Ambassador to Egypt Ann Patterson has also faced criticism from MPs in recent weeks. Mustafa Bakri accused Patterson of insulting the Egyptian judiciary "when she sent a letter to the minister of justice objecting to the arrest of US citizens charged with violating NGO regulations".
Salem Shanab, a member of the Freedom and Justice Party, demanded on 19 February that the campaign against Egypt -- and the Minister of State for International Cooperation and Planning Fayza Abul-Naga -- in US Congress warranted the condemnation of every Egyptian and was reason enough to end "Egyptian dependency on the United States". "America is still far from recognising that the 25 January Revolution restored Egyptian independence and dignity and Egyptians will never accept being humiliated for the sake of American aid."
Shanab also urged the assembly to restore relations with Iran.
El-Katatni said the foreign affairs and national defence committees had been asked to examine "the campaign against Egypt and Abul-Naga in Congress and prepare a report for discussion".
On Monday El-Katatni met with US Senator John McCain. Following their meeting a statement was issued saying they had discussed the future of American-Egyptian relations and agreed on the need to strengthen relations between the Egyptian parliament and US Congress.
Leftist MP Abul-Ezz El-Hariri also directed a question at Tantawi, Prime Minister El-Ganzouri and Minister of Finance Momtaz El-Said, demanding to know why the International Arab Bank, established under the Mubarak regime, should continue to operate outside Central Bank of Egypt supervision.
"This bank was established to launder money and move funds abroad for leading regime figures. There is ample evidence that it was the channel through which $9 billion were moved to Europe by Mubarak era cronies. It is time the bank's operations were exposed," El-Hariri told the assembly on 19 February.