CAIRO (AP) — Egypt's newly elected upper house of parliament picked an Islamist as its speaker on Tuesday, consolidating control by the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party over the two legislative chambers.
The election of pharmacology professor Ahmed Fahmy as speaker of the Shura Council came during the chamber's inaugural session. Saad el-Katatni, like Fahmy a member of the Freedom and Justice Party, was elected speaker of the more powerful lower house, or People's Assembly, on Jan. 23.
The Muslim Brotherhood is Egypt's oldest and most powerful Islamic organization. Its Freedom and Justice Party members hold just under half of all seats in the 508-seat lower house and 106 of the Shura Council's 180 elected seats. An additional 90 lawmakers are due to be appointed by the ruling generals who took over power when Egypt's longtime authoritarian president Hosni Mubarak was ousted after a popular uprising a year ago.
The generals are expected to leave the appointments to the nation's next president, due to be elected before the end of June. Then the generals say they will hand over power to a civilian government.
Ultra-conservative Islamists known as Salafis made strong showings in elections for both chambers, finishing second behind the Freedom and Justice Party and giving parliament a distinct Islamic character. The two houses are due to hold a joint session later this week to select a 100-member panel to draft a new constitution, the main role of the chambers, chosen in Egypt's first free elections in decades.
Liberal and secular activists who spearheaded the mass demonstrations that toppled Mubarak last February fared poorly in the election for the Shura Council, repeating their failure in voting for the People's Assembly.
As was the case when the People's Assembly held its first session, Salafi members of the Shura Council improvised when taking their oath of office on Tuesday. The oath ends with a pledge to respect the constitution and the law, but several of them added "God's law" or said "as long as there are no contradictions with God's law."
Egypt's military ruler, Hussein Tantawi, sent the Shura Council a message, blaming outside forces for Egypt's continuing turmoil.
Tantawi, who was Mubarak's defense minister for 20 years, spoke in the message of "attempts to sow sedition among the people" to distract the armed forces from what he called the restoration of state institutions.
Tantawi, as in previous public statements, did not say who was trying to drive a wedge between Egyptians nor elaborate on their motives.
Tantawi and the generals on the ruling military council have been accused of killing protesters, torturing detainees and putting at least 10,000 civilians on trial before military tribunals. They also are accused of bungling the transition and failing to revive the economy or restore security over the past year.
Fahmy read the message to the chamber, then heaped praise on the military, repeating the generals' line that the military sided with last year's popular revolution against Mubarak's regime and has since served as a "sword and shield to protect and defend the nation."
Fahmy's comments appeared to give credence to growing suspicions that the Brotherhood and the generals have reached an understanding designed in part to isolate the youths and liberals behind Mubarak's ouster. They have been campaigning for an end to military rule.
The generals are hoping that the Islamists will provide them with immunity against prosecution for any crimes committed during their rule. They also want protection from civilian oversight for their vast economic empire.