Is Egypt’s Parliament Finally Ready for Prime Time?

Decorated with red velvet bunting and three tiers of faux gold leaf-trimmed wooden benches squeezed into a single back office room of a Belle Epoque building in downtown Cairo, the Egyptian opposition’s new People’s Parliament looks more like the moth-balled set of a television courtroom drama than a future organ of institutional power. Launched by the parties that boycotted December’s elections for the official Egyptian parliament, the shadow parliament had its first full meeting on Sunday. But it in turn has been overshadowed by the spontaneous popular uprising against the regime of President Hosni Mubarak that continued into its seventh day on Monday largely without leadership from the traditional organized opposition.

Indeed, an older generation of Egyptian opposition politicians — who are often portrayed in the media as unfocused and disunited — is perceived to be playing catch up to a new, younger generation of activists, who are just as often celebrated as hip and socially-connected. Egypt’s opposition elders are quickly trying to reassert their relevance, by emphasizing the need not just to confront the Mubarak regime, but also to transform the political landscape of the Egyptian state. The People’s Parliament has a role — say its creators — and not only because it is coincidentally located conveniently close to the heart of the protest movement in Tahrir Square. “Some people laughed at us, and the government tried to ignore us,” says Wael Nawara, 49, the secretary general of al-Ghad (or Tomorrow), the opposition party led by former presidential candidate Ayman Nour, whose headquarters now house the new parliament. “But the People’s Parliament is an idea whose time has come. We’re not running the show, but we here to translate the people’s universal demand that the regime should go into meaningful action.”

The People’s Parliament isn’t strictly representative, its 100 members — 55 of whom used to be MP’s in the Egyptian parliament — were chosen from within the ranks of about a dozen opposition parties and movements by those groups themselves. They include an umbrella of reform inspired by Nobel Laureate Mohammad ElBarradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and also the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s largest opposition group, which controls 15% of the body, but which also backed Sunday’s decision by the opposition to support ElBarradei as their leading figure.

One putative role for the parliament would be to manage the transition from dictatorship to democracy. In Sunday’s session, it selected a group of “wise men” who would “negotiate with the regime for its safe departure,” as Nawara put it optimistically. This will be no easy task, one, because, as of Monday night, it wasn’t yet final who was on the committe; and two, well, because the regime isn’t inclined to give up power. Among other tricks, the opposition expects that the government will try to negotiate — or try to form a so-called unity government — with legal opposition groups that are in fact controlled by the government. But more broadly, 30 years of near total rule by one man under the guise of democracy has stunted the country’s political development. Without free media, independent courts and electoral oversight, even new elections tomorrow — or the presidential elections scheduled to be held later this year — would still almost certainly rubber stamp the regime back into power despite its widespread unpopularity.

Thus the opposition supports a transitional period of perhaps six months to even two years during which time they would elect an assembly to re-write the country’s constitution and reform its politicized institutions before new elections could be held, according to Nawara. “At that point the Revolution would have completed its mandate, and the rest would be up to the people of Egypt,” he says.

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