On Sunday, Saad El-Katatni, speaker of the People's Assembly – the lower house of Egypt's parliament – surprised observers when he announced that the assembly would suspend its activities for a one-week period. The move was taken to protest the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF)'s rejection of a recent ruling to allow the majority party in parliament to appoint a new civilian government.
Although El-Katatni criticised the SCAF several times, taking it to task for snubbing parliament and refusing to dismiss the government of Prime Minister Kamal El-Ganzouri, nobody expected him to go so far as to suspend parliamentary activity.
On Monday, some 80 MPs belonging to the Salafist Nour Party – the second largest parliamentary bloc – along with liberal and leftist deputies cried foul, saying that El-Katatni had taken the wrong decision. Emad Gad, liberal MP and Al-Ahram political analyst, told Ahram Online that El-Katatni had imposed the will of his party – the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) – on parliament.
"El-Katatni should have taken a vote on this critical decision, which took all non-FJP MPs by surprise," said Gad. He went on to suggest that Sunday's decision had been a premeditated move by FJP figures. "Many believe the decision was taken in advance by the FJP in coordination with the Muslim Brotherhood, while other deputies were kept in the dark," argued Gad.
A large number of deputies, including Gad, refused to depart the chamber following the announcement, but later went to El-Katatni's office to voice their opposition to the decision. They collected MPs signatures for a petition calling on El-Katatni to reverse his decision. On Monday, the number of signatures rose to 158, with independent MP Yasser El-Qadi telling parliamentary correspondents that "most non-FJP deputies believe that the Muslim Brotherhood has hijacked the assembly and that the group's leader, Mohamed Badei, is the one pulling the strings."
El-Qadi added that almost all non-FJP deputies, including the ultraconservative Salafist Nour Party, reject the notion of withdrawing confidence from the current government. "Yes, we reject El-Ganzouri's annual policy statement [delivered to parliament on 26 February], but we also reject dismissing this government simply because time is too short to do this," he said.
Liberal MP Amr Hamzawy stressed his rejection of El-Katatni's decision, "because we refuse that parliament be turned into a battleground for partisan political interests, and because the move will severely damage parliament's reputation."
By contrast, FJP deputies rallied to support El-Katatni's decision. Several leading FJP representatives, who are also the heads of most parliamentary committees, argued that the decision "was necessary to uphold parliamentarians' dignity." El-Katatni himself, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood's authoritative Guidance Office and chairman of parliament's budget committee, said: "The government and the SCAF breached parliament's dignity; it was necessary for El-Katatni – in his capacity as parliamentary speaker – to defend the assembly's honour."
For his part, El-Katatni told parliamentary reporters on Monday that the assembly "will meet again next Sunday regardless of any decisions or reactions from the SCAF and the government." El-Katatni also told non-FJP parliamentarians on Sunday that SCAF officials had informed him by telephone that "a cabinet reshuffle would be made within 48 hours and that a caretaker government – headed up by El-Ganzouri – would be appointed."
Some MPs even told journalists that "a minor reshuffle might be introduced simply to contain the anger of El-Katatni and parliament." Others said that only two cabinet ministers – those of foreign affairs and of petroleum – would be sacked.
The news, however, was vehemently denied by SCAF officials and some cabinet ministers. SCAF member Mohsen El-Fangary, for example, said: "I have no idea about any cabinet reshuffle and am unaware of any contacts with El-Katatni." Fayza Abul-Naga, Egypt's forceful minister of international cooperation, for her part, asserted: "What has been said about [an imminent Cabinet reshuffle] is only rumours and hearsay."
Many MPs believe El-Katatni was simply trying to contain the anger of non-FJP deputies by telling them on Sunday that the SCAF was planning a cabinet reshuffle. "El-Katatni was simply trying to save face, so he told us there would be a cabinet reshuffle," said El-Qadi.
Leading Salafist MP Ashraf Thabet, meanwhile, said that Nour Party deputies had repeatedly expressed their opposition to El-Ganzouri's policy statement. "But we also made it clear that we were equally opposed to dismissing the El-Ganzouri government at this critical time, with presidential elections around the corner and a new constitution to be put before a popular referendum."
The showdown between the SCAF and parliament is not confined to the issue of the government's fate. The two are also at loggerheads over the rules for forming a new constituent assembly tasked with drafting Egypt's new constitution. At a Saturday meeting between SCAF officials, led by Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, and political party representatives, new criteria were adopted for the assembly's formulation. The following day, members of parliament's constitutional affairs committee surprised most observers by fiercely attacking the proposed criteria.
Deputy committee chairman and Brotherhood firebrand Sobhi Saleh told journalists on Sunday described the Saturday agreement between the SCAF and political parties as "a direct insult to parliament, which is empowered by Article 60 of the constitutional declaration to form the [constituent] assembly." Saleh's statements drew sharp attacks from secular parties, which accused FJP leaders of backtracking on their promises and attempting to impose their will on the constitution-drafting process.
Many, however, believe the ongoing differences between the Brotherhood-dominated parliament and the ruling military council are part of a broader dispute over Egypt's political destiny. Gad, for his part, believes the Muslim Brotherhood hopes to secure for itself a more influential role in the upcoming period, fearing the imminent election of a non-FJP president.
"They want to maximise their current parliamentary dominance, especially given rumours that parliament might be dissolved," said Gad. "A new power structure is emerging in Egypt and the Islamists are trying to carve a foothold for themselves in this new structure."
In a related development, the Muslim Brotherhood was dealt a blow this week when two leading Salafist parties announced their support for presidential candidate Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh at the expense of Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi.