The third round of the current 2005-2010 People’s Assembly term has been the most heated parliamentary round in the history of the Assembly, observers said. Although it started quietly but it flared up in the last month in which the government passed- through the majority of the ruling National Democratic Party- most bills starting from the child law amendments through traffic law, real-estate taxes, monopoly exercises and others.
Ikhwanweb interviewed Dr. Mohamed Saad El Katatni, chairman of the Muslim Brotherhood parliamentary bloc, hours before the end of the parliamentary round on Thursday June 19, 2008 to highlight the most heated debates inside the parliament and the performance of the opposition vis-à-vis the pro-government majority.
Ikhwanweb: How would you assess the performance of MB parliamentarians during the past three years?
El Katatni: Personally speaking, I am definitely satisfied with the performance of the bloc because it offered so many things on the supervisory, legislative and service levels. It made the Assembly work effectively and the proof can be traced in the parliament minutes.
Ikhwanweb: What do you think are the achievements of the bloc during this round?
El Katatni: Undoubtedly, the parliament minutes recorded during sessions and committees of the Assembly’s third round of the ninth legislative season an abnormal performance from the Muslim Brotherhood bloc members. They managed to use all parliamentary mechanisms and instruments in various issues. They even revived parliamentary mechanisms that were kept on hold for a long time such as survey committees and requests for general discussion and other mechanisms.
In a seven months period, MB MPs tabled more than 2000 written questions, urgent statements, suggestions, accounting for more than 70 percent of the mechanisms used by all MPs. About 60% of these requests were discussed. Also, the MB MPs submitted more than 50 interrogations in the period from November 2007 until February 2008 before the Muslim Brotherhood, independent and opposition MPs took the decision of withdrawing their interrogations and not to submit any more interrogations in solidarity with MP Saad Abboud, whom the PA decided to deny parliament sessions till the end of the third round after he submitted an interrogation about the corruption in pilgrimage requests. The parliament discussed in the period from November 2007 to February 2008 15 interrogations submitted by MB Bloc MPs.
For example, the parliamentary bloc raised in the session held on Saturday December 29, 2007 the case of the ruling NDP majority MPs receiving bribes ranging between 100000 and 250000 pounds for every MP from government.
* We refused the government statement delivered by Prime Minister Dr. Ahmed Nazif to the People’s Assembly in which he described the Egyptian people in totally unacceptable terms.
*We refused the Government Final Account and called for impeaching the Finance Minister. We also confronted stealing insurance money and company violations.
*We called for respecting human rights in Egypt, we condemned the military trials and we firmly confronted government over the bread crisis and the latest price hikes. Also, we called for forming a fact-finding committee to investigate Al-Mahalla incidents in the wake of April 6 strike. We also used during several sessions our supervisory instruments to protest against exporting natural gas to Israel after this case was covered under a media blackout imposed on the People’s Assembly, plus government orders of shrouding this issue with secrecy.
Whenever the government used its majority to block this issue, the MB Bloc resorted to other mechanisms that included written questions and urgent statements and demands for opening the discussion signed by more than 20 MPs in addition to a bill that bans signing agreements of exporting gas except after discussing this in the PA. When the government claimed that the provisions of the agreement are secret and cannot be released to the media, the MB Bloc demanded holding a closed-door session in the PA to discuss this issue.
During this showdown between the MB Bloc and government, many gains were achieved by the Muslim Brotherhood Bloc, independent and opposition MPs who took a strict line towards this issue that included summoning Oil Minister to reply to written questions around this issue. When he escaped from answering specific questions of the price and why Israel, the Bloc discussed the issue again in the plenary session of the People’s Assembly on Monday June 16, 2008 while discussing the report of the industry and energy committee around exporting oil materials. The MB Bloc MPs along with opposition and independent MPs taught the government and its majority key lessons in this issue.
*The contributions of the MB Bloc include also that most recommendations the industry committee’s report adopted were the ones adopted and demanded by the MB Bloc MPs. Although the third round of the ninth legislative season has been wrapped up the Muslim Brotherhood bloc will in coordination with the independent and opposition MPs reopen this file and will keep it open as long as there is an Egyptian natural gas pumped to Israel.
*Also, the Muslim Brotherhood Bloc submitted interrogations, written questions and urgent statements about the bad conditions in prisons and the policy adopted by the Interior Ministry against university students including repressions and rigging student union elections, rigging labor union elections plus the rigging and violations committed in the elections of the Shura Council (the upper chamber of parliament,) the local councils elections and others.
*We also rejected extending the emergency law, the Child law, and the Plan and Budget bills because the latter are against the poor and low-income people’s interests. We also demanded forming a fact-finding committee to investigate Secondary School Diploma (SSD) scandal. Our achievements were capped at the end of the round with forcing government to withdraw the first article of the attorney bill law. We also refused involving terrorism into the money laundry law and we refused the real-estate tax bill law as it adds more burdens on the Egyptian citizen and leans toward the rich. We also refused that the Minister of Justice becomes the chief of judiciaries.
Ikhwanweb: If decisions are taken according to majority, what is the benefit from the opposition of the minority?
El Katatni: We approved democracy as is the case in parliaments all over the world, but there is a difference here in Egypt. Any majority in parliaments of the civilized world adopts any serious issue proposed by the opposition but this rarely happens in the Egyptian parliament. For example, when we were discussing the Attorneys Bill, the opposition argued that the bill is unconstitutional. After deliberations and after strenuous efforts from the opposition and after consultations among the majority leaders, the first article of the bill was canceled to address the opposition’s demands.
Ikhwanweb: Some think that your presence in the parliament gives legitimacy to all bills ratified. The majority agrees and the minority refuses in a scene which is much better than a 100 percent approval?
El Katatni: We support democratic practices. There is no parliament without opposition and we record our views in the minutes and I do not give any legitimacy to majority and its decisions because it bears the brunt of this in front of the public opinion.
Ikhwanweb: However, whenever a crisis emerges like extending the emergency law and ratifying the constitutional amendments or any other bill, people call on you to submit a mass resignation. Why haven’t you addressed this demand as a kind of pressure on the regime?
El Katatni: The issue of submitting resignations is not on the table because people elected us to represent and work for them, not to resign or withdraw. The issue of submitting a resignation was raised once while discussing the constitutional amendments in 2007, the worst in the history of parliament. We aimed it to get out of the dilemma of the constitutional amendments to prevent ratifying them even if this led to resignations. The Muslim Brotherhood and independents MPs were to resign and then the People’s Assembly will not reach the quorum required to pass the amendments and that holding the Assembly session would be deemed unconstitutional, leading consequently to early elections.
However, after consulting constitutional law experts, they advised us to ignore the issue of the resignations because it will need measures that may take days and weeks, and the House Speaker can even discuss and pass the amendments first and then discuss the resignation requests later. This would mean that we lose our seats without achieving what we wanted. In sum, the resignation was to be a sign of our protest against constitutional amendments.
Ikhwanweb: You are accused of receiving directions of your agenda from the Muslim Brotherhood’s Executive Bureau. How far is that true?
El Katatni: There is no relation between the Muslim Brotherhood’s Executive Bureau and what the Muslim Brotherhood’s parliamentary bloc does in parliament. However, we should never forget that we ran for the elections and won people’s trust under a Muslim Brotherhood election platform. Personally speaking, I coordinate with the Muslim Brotherhood in general issues and general directions, but as for what is happening inside parliament, the Muslim Brotherhood has nothing to do with it.
Ikhwanweb: Some see that your performance has been clouded by caution. You fear escalation many times lest the parliament is dissolved. Do you expect that parliament will be dissolved soon?
El Katatni: I do not think that the regime will dissolve the parliament for the following reasons:
The ruling party got out bruised in the last elections and its public rating hit its lowest levels because it failed in curbing price hikes, and government disappeared from the street due to its failure. Add to this the increasing social protests and the reported complaints in the ranks of the ruling National Democratic party because of picking candidates who are rejected by the effective cadres in the party’s ranks. If the parliament is dissolved, the elections must be held in 60 days after this, another crisis in the NDP which is suffering from internal rifts. In either case, we have a reformist project and the People’s Assembly is only a means not an end. If the parliament is dissolved, we will maintain our mission which addresses aspirations of the great Egyptian people.
Ikhwanweb: Certainly, nothing is perfect. What are the defects that marred your performance in the past three years?
El Katatni: There are some defects; but the mechanism that runs the People’s Assembly is to blame. For example, in the past round we did no serious work for about five months and the Assembly’s agenda was little, but we were stunned in the last month with the government submitting myriads of bill laws and amendments, the most prominent of which were the Traffic Bill, the Child Bill, the Real-Estate Taxes Bill, the Money Laundry Bill, the Monopoly bill and the Attorneys Bill. The MPs didn’t manage to reach the optimum performance in front of such a huge number of bills during such a short period. Some bill laws were given to us in the morning to discuss them in the evening of the same day or on the following day. More than one bill law were even discussed at the same time, a strenuous effort for the MPs causing some defects in performance, but I think the government was doing this premeditatedly and on purpose.
El Katatni: It wants to tailor the bill laws and ratify them quickly without any slow discussion to prevent the public opinion from following up what happens. Add to this denying the civil society institutions and satellite channels the chance to give the opposite viewpoints and the society’s views in them. I think that the government, by doing so, under the approval of the Assembly presidency, has tried every one. Add to this the fact that the government wanted to serve businessmen and it sometimes leaned to specific agreements. I think that cooking bill laws in such a way deem it unconstitutional later on.
Ikhwanweb: Why do you think membership of Mokhtar Al-Beih, MP for Suhag, was dropped in the last hour before the end of the parliamentary round?
El Katatni: This issue can be seen from several perspectives. The rival of MP Mokhtar Al-Beih is Hazem Hammadi, a former State Security Brigade General who is close the regime. Hammadi is in the policies committee and he badly needs this membership and its immunity as quick as possible.
Although the report has been shelved in the PA for several months everything was accomplished in one day. Although we respect the rulings of the Court of Cassation, the PA is not neutral and it adopts a double standard policy. There are dozens other rulings which are still shelved. Take for example what happened in constituencies of Damanhur, Dokki, Zagazig and Nasr City and many other constituencies. The People’s Assembly did not discuss them and when we raised the issue, the Assembly gave a deaf ear. This dropping of the membership is clearly selective.
From another perspective, we oppose not mainly dropping Al-Beih’s membership and replacing him with Al Hammadi. We actually condemn the measures through which this takes place. The Court of Cassation report did not mention any that "material mistake" upon which the legislative committee’s board founded its report. The legislative committee shouldn’t have intervened in the report of the Court of Cassation that concluded that the election process in the First Constituency in the city of Suhag was marred by violations. This means dropping the membership of Al-Beih and holding elections again, not directly bringing his rival to replace him without any elections. It was as if the party feared exposing its popularity in Suhag and adopted this ensured and comfortable method.
Ikhwanweb: Why in your opinion has the regime backpedaled on its reformist attitude and adopted instead a policy of exclusion?
El Katatni: in 2005, the regime was facing foreign pressures that forced it to give more freedoms spawning a political activism in the street, and spawning winning 25 % seats for the opposition in parliament. However, after elections in Palestine and Hamas overwhelming victory in the Palestinian Legislative Council in January 2006, the Egyptian regime found what may justify its backpedaling on the package of reforms that it called for and promised to achieve. It sent a message to the world that if it allowed more democracy and freedoms, the Islamists may assume power. This led to the marriage of interests of the regime and foreign powers that eased pressures and the regime backpedaled.
Ikhwanweb: We hear from time to time voices claiming that there are secret contacts between you and the Americans, and that El Katatni with his parliamentary immunity is the ambassador of these contacts?
El Katatni: This isn’t true. I met the Americans only in the People’s Assembly and upon an invitation from the People’s Assembly Speaker and within a parliamentary delegation. This happened twice.
Ikhwanweb: Finally, what do you think of the Egyptian parliament?
El Katatni: It is a tamed parliament in which the executive authority is dominant and imposes whatever it wants.