A meeting aimed at eliminating constitutional gridlocks standing in the way of Egypt's long-delayed parliamentary elections ended abruptly on Tuesday amid verbal clashes and acrimony.
Minister of Parliamentary Affairs Ibrahim El-Heneidy told reporters that Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab was forced to end the meeting with political parties and other national figures after verbal clashes erupted among the attendees.
The elections were due to begin on 21 March but were postponed after a court ruling found the electoral constituencies law, by which the electoral districts for the election were to be allocated, to be unconstitutional. The elections would be the first parliamentary polls since the 2013 ouster of President Mohamed Morsi.
El-Heneidy said the meeting began calmly and continued quietly for two hours, but at the third hour verbal clashes flared.
The first clash flared up when Mahmoud Farghal, chairman of the Social Justice Party, was given the floor. Instead of presenting his party's proposed amendments to the law, Farghal launched a scathing attack on "the Muslim Brotherhood and its ideological partners."
The Social Justice Party was set up under the regime of former president Hosni Mubarak.
Directing his words at Mahlab, Farghal stressed that "Egypt's coming parliament must not include any Muslim Brotherhood remnants or Salafist elements."
"We should take the utmost care in amending laws in order not to allow Muslim brothers and Salafists to infiltrate the coming parliament in any way," said Farghal.
Ashraf Thabet, the deputy chairman of the Salafist Nour Party, objected to the mention of Salafists, saying that "Farghal's words contain an unacceptable remark."
"In a national dialogue meeting, all participants must respect each other and should rather focus on presenting their proposed amendments to election laws," he said.
Thabet strongly denied that the Nour Party is a religious party, adding that most Salafists sided with the majority of Egyptians in ousting former Islamist President Mohamed Morsi in 2013 and putting an end to the one-year rule of Muslim Brotherhood.
The spat heated up when Nagi El-Shehabi, chairman of Al-Geel Party (Generation Party) and a long-time parliamentarian who had served as an MP both before and after the 2011 revolution, intervened, asking Farghal to stop his "random attacks".
Farghal responded by lashing out at El-Shehabi, describing him as "a Muslim Brotherhood loyalist who should keep silent."
Joining the fray, Alaa Abdel-Azim, secretary-general of the Free Republican Party, accused Mahlab and his government of doing their best to delay parliamentary elections.
"This government has never taken any serious step towards creating a powerful parliament or establishing a real multi-party system," said Abdel-Azim.
The accusations drew a quick response from Mahlab. "The government is doing its best to meet an ambitious economic and political agenda," he told the group.
"In our meetings we should rather respect each other and we hope that the next parliamentary elections will be a new Egyptian experience in democracy and party life," he said.
A third argument erupted when high-profile film director Khaled Youssef and Khaled Dawoud, spokesman of the liberal Constitution Party, objected to a review delivered by Salah Fawzi, a constitutional law professor and a member of a government committee in charge of amending election laws.
Fawzi rejected any radical changes to the electoral constituencies law, urging all instead to build on "what was ruled constitutional by the Supreme Constitutional Court."
Youssef and Dawoud agreed that "the word 'constitutional' could signal that there is no real wish for change."
"If the committee has already rejected any proposals for changing the party list constituencies, what then is the benefit of our attending this meeting?" asked Dawoud.
Several political parties, including the Constitution Party, have repeatedly asked the government to change the constituencies law to allow increasing the number of seats allocated to party-based candidates from 120 and 180 and allow political parties to be represented in parliament in proportion to the votes they receive, rather than allow the party winning more than 50 per cent of the votes to take all the seats in the constituency.
Mahlab said after the meeting that the disputes should not stand in the way of continuing the dialogue between the government and political forces.
The prime minister said he is ready to attend a third round of national dialogue meetings on Thursday in a bid to reach consensus over electoral reforms necessary to pave the way for the country's long-awaited parliamentary elections.
"We are all one family and we all hope that parliamentary elections will be held as soon as possible," he added.
Mahlab said he has high hopes that parliamentary elections will kick off before the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, scheduled to begin on 18 June. Mahlab also joined forces with Fawzi, stressing that "the priority should be given to amending law articles ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Constitutional Court while keeping the constitutional articles in place."
Margaret Azer, a former Wafd Party official, told reporters that the national dialogue meeting on Tuesday was frustrating.
"Strong differences among political parties over election laws and lack of good debate led the meeting to degenerate into bad verbal clashes that could adversely affect the image of political parties into the eyes of most Egyptians," said Azer, adding that "political parties with personal interests and foreign agendas should be excluded from such national dialogue meetings."