(Updates with session starting in first paragraph.)
Jan. 23 (Bloomberg) -- Egypt’s newly elected parliament convened today for the first time since the downfall of Hosni Mubarak with Islamists dominating a legislature in which they once had no presence.
The first session, broadcast on state television, was temporarily chaired by the oldest lawmaker, Mahmoud el-Sakka, from the Wafd party, until a speaker is elected, the Middle East News Agency reported.
Islamists led by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom & Justice party dominate the lower house of the assembly, in contrast to the previous parliament, which was controlled by Mubarak’s now- dissolved National Democratic Party and contained no lawmakers from the Brotherhood. Freedom and Justice said it won 235 of the 498 elected seats, or 47 percent of the total. The party has nominated its secretary-general, Mohamed Saad El-Katatni, as the parliamentary speaker.
“This is a parliament that is reflective of the Egyptian people’s will,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar. “There isn’t any longer one party that dominates Egyptian politics.”
While the elections were the freest in decades, the seven weeks of voting failed to allay tensions between the activists who ousted Mubarak and the military council that took power from him. Protesters are calling for mass rallies on Jan. 25, the anniversary of the start of the demonstrations against Mubarak, to demand the generals transfer power immediately to civilians. The council has said it will only cede authority when a president is elected by the end of June.
One of the first tasks of parliament is to select a committee that will write the new constitution, an issue that has been the focus of much political wrangling. Conflicting statements about the powers the assembly will hold in the future led to speculation of an eventual confrontation with the country’s military rulers.
“The tensions are going to build slowly,” said Hamid. “Sometimes there will be accommodation, sometimes there will be confrontation. Right now, at least for the next five months, there’s an interest in reaching compromise on a number of key issues.”
The alliance led by the Nour party, which follows an austere interpretation of Islam, holds the second-largest share of seats. Under Mubarak and his predecessors, Egypt’s security forces were used to suppress Islamist and other opposition groups.
Many demonstrators say the structure of the electoral system and timing of the vote unfairly favored the Brotherhood.
The unrest of the past year has curbed tourist arrivals and foreign investment and lowered economic growth to 1.8 percent in the fiscal year through June, the slowest pace in at least a decade. Tourist arrivals fell 33 percent last year, while international reserves are at the lowest level since March 2005.
The government failed to achieve its target of 3.5 billion pounds ($580 million) in yesterday’s sale of nine-month treasury bills, raising less than a third of that amount and paying an average yield of 15.802 percent. That’s the highest rate since Bloomberg started tracking the data in 2006.
Egypt submitted a formal request last week for a $3.2 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund on Jan. 16 to help its struggling economy. Egyptian officials said they turned down a deal for a similar debt package from the fund last June. Since then, foreign currency reserves have dropped 32 percent.
Ahead of parliament’s opening session, workers repainted fences and power poles in a street leading to the assembly building in central Cairo, even as security forces wielding riot shields manned a barbed-wire barrier erected in the same road. Some protesters maintained their vigil in nearby Tahrir Square, the center of the anti-Mubarak uprising and subsequent protests against the country’s ruling generals.
The head of the military council, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, said Egypt is facing “grave and unprecedented dangers” and urged Egyptians to be vigilant to thwart “plots and conspiracies” against their country, Mena reported on Jan. 17. The army on Jan. 21 ordered the release of 1,959 prisoners convicted by military courts since the protests began.
--With assistance from Ahmed Namatalla in Cairo. Editors: Digby Lidstone, Louis Meixler, Ben Holland.
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