Islamist MPs took centre stage on Monday as Egypt’s parliament met for the first time since a popular uprising ousted Hosni Mubarak, while their supporters massed outside to cheer the historic event.
A year after the uprising, many Egyptians see the new parliament as the first sign of democratic rule, in sharp contrast to the previous legislature dominated by Mubarak’s party.
Egypt’s first free parliamentary elections, which were held in phases between November and early January, saw Islamists clinch nearly three-quarters of the seats.
Outside the People’s Assembly, hundreds of Islamist supporters had greeted the MPs as they entered the parliament, in scenes unimaginable just a year ago when most Islamist movements were banned.
And in their first act, the deputies in the lower house began voting for a speaker, with leading Muslim Brotherhood member Saad al-Katatni expected to win.
But the exact role of parliament remains unclear, with power remaining in the hands of the generals who took power from former president Mubarak.
“How can we read this oath when we don’t even know if we will be a presidential system or a parliamentary system?” one MP asked during the swearing in.
Later, protesters set off for parliament from across Cairo to press deputies to implement the goals of the revolution, including an end to military trials of civilians, social justice and the trial of officials found guilty of abuse.
They were to join hundreds who were already chanting outside the parliament against the ruling military council and its chief Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, who served as Mubarak’s defence minister for two decades.
The military has come under intense criticism in recent months for rights abuses and stifling dissent.
Activists accuse the generals of seeking to maintain political control despite assurances by the army that it will cede power to civilian rule when a president is elected in June.
The packed and sometimes chaotic first session was chaired by parliament’s most senior member, Mahmud al-Saqqa of the liberal Wafd party.
The deputies were sworn in one by one, pledging to “preserve the safety of the nation and the interests of people and to respect the constitution and the law.”
In a sign of the Islamists’ increasing assertiveness, one ultra-conservative Islamist MP insisted on adding a religious reference to the oath.
When lawyer Mamduh Ismail took the microphone vowing to also “abide by the law of God,” he was sharply rebuked by the chair, Saqqa.
“Please stick to the text,” an angry Saqqa urged Ismail, asking him to repeat the oath several times. “Mr Ismail, my friend, please stand up and read the oath, and stick to the text.”
Others tried to add “to protect the goals of the revolution” to the oath and received a similar rebuke, during the animated first session which saw several deputies don yellow sashes calling for “an end to military trials of civilians.”
The long-banned Muslim Brotherhood won a crushing victory with 47.18 percent through its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party.
The ultra-conservative Salafist Al-Nur party came second with 24.29 percent, with the liberal Wafd party finishing a distant third.
The liberal Egyptian Bloc — which includes the Free Egyptians party of telecom magnate Naguib Sawiris who faces trial on allegations of insulting Islam — came fourth with around seven percent.
The 508-member assembly was dissolved in February by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces that took power when Mubarak was forced to step down.
The Brotherhood, Egypt’s best organised political grouping, had been widely expected to triumph in the polls but the surge by Al-Nur and high visibility of Salafi movements have raised fears about civil liberties and religious freedom.
Elections for parliament’s upper house, the Shura Council, are to begin later this month and end in February. Then the two chambers will choose a 100-member panel to draft a new constitution.