Parties pick 1st Islamist Egypt parliament speaker

January 16, 2012 - 1:25 PM
Mideast Egypt

Saad el-Katatni, secretary general for the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, right, attends a press conference in Cairo, Egypt, Monday, Jan. 16, 2012. El-Katatni, secretary general of the influential Muslim Brotherhood political arm, has been selected Monday by a number of Islamist and liberal parties to hold the post when the parliament convenes on Jan. 23. (AP Photo/Mohammed Abu Zaid)

CAIRO (AP) — Top parties in Egypt's incoming parliament have agreed to select an Islamist politician as house speaker for the first time in decades, party leaders said Monday.

The Muslim Brotherhood, the big winner in the first election since the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak last February, said it joined several other parties in backing Saad el-Katatni, the secretary-general of the Brotherhood's own party.

The main function of the new parliament is to pick a 100-person commission to draw up a new constitution for Egypt, while preparations take place for presidential elections scheduled for June.

The selection of el-Katatni showed the power of the Islamists to influence that process.

The Muslim Brotherhood-led alliance won more than 45 percent of the 498 parliament seats. A more radical Islamist movement won another 25 percent. The two are not seen likely to join forces on many issues because of their religious differences.

On Monday, Brotherhood leaders met with heads of other parties to try to reach wide agreement over the choice of a speaker.

Mohammed Morsi, the Brotherhood party's leader, said the meeting was meant to give assurances that there would be no "exclusions, no polarization and no conflict. Instead there will be national consensus" in parliament.

Mohammed Abouel Ghar, head of secular Egyptian Social Democratic Party, which emerged from the popular uprising, said, "We agreed to have consensus on selection of the heads of subcommittees. Even the small parties and those with only one seat will not be excluded."

Parties like his that represent reformers and activists at the center of the movement that toppled Mubarak failed to parlay that success into voting strength, splitting into several factions and winning less than a quarter of the seats in parliament.

Besides choosing the constitutional commission, the powers of the incoming parliament are limited.

The parliament, set to convene Jan. 23, cannot form a government or request a vote of no confidence, according to an interim charter that transferred Mubarak's powers to the head of the ruling military council.

On Monday, the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch group urged the new parliament to urgently reform laws used to curb freedoms and repress rights.

The group said that the parliament's top priority should be to revise laws that limit association and assembly, allow indefinite detention without charge and shield the police force from accountability.

"Egypt's stalled transition can be revived only if the new parliament dismantles Egypt's repressive legal framework, the toolbox the government has relied on for decades to silence journalists, punish political opponents, and stifle civil society," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

"Egypt's new political parties need to live up to the promises of the Egyptian uprising by ensuring that no government can ever again trample on the rights of the Egyptian people," she said.

According to Human Rights Watch, the ruling military has relied on existing laws to arrest protesters and journalists and to try more than 12,000 civilians before military courts.

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Associated Press writer Hadeel Al-Shalchi contributed to this report.