In a sit-in staged last week, some liberal-minded MPs expressed their frustration about the performance of the newly-elected Parliament Speaker Saad El-Katatni. Ziad El-Oleimi, a member of the Egyptian Socialist Democratic Party, complained that El-Katatni showed a clear bias towards deputies of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), giving them the floor at the expense of liberal-minded deputies. “Worse,” added El-Oleimi, “El-Katatni gets nervous whenever a non-Islamist MP takes the floor.”
El-Oleimi decided to boycott the People's Assembly for some time and later joined a number of deputies staging a sit-in “in protest both against El-Katatni's bias and the police opening fire on protesters outside the headquarters of the interior ministry in downtown Cairo."
When El-Katatni, former secretary-general of the FJP, was elected the speaker of Egypt's first post-uprising People's Assembly, many had high hopes that he would be completely different from his predecessor, Ahmed Fathi Sorour, a stalwart of ousted president Hosni Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). Sorour, the longest-serving parliamentary speaker in Egypt's modern history (1990-2010), is currently in custody pending trial on charges of illegal profiteering and having a hand in orchestrating armed attacks on peaceful protesters during the Battle of the Camel on 2 February 2011. Sorour was widely considered the Mubarak regime's chief architect in tailoring dictatorial laws and redrafting the constitution in 2007 to prepare the ground for Mubarak’s son, Gamal, to inherit power.
In educational and ideological terms, El-Katatni is completely different from Sorour. While El-Katatni, 60, is a graduate of the Upper Egypt Assuit University Faculty of Science and holds a PhD in botanical studies, Sorour, 80, is a graduate of Cairo University's Faculty of Law and holds a PhD in criminal law. El-Katatni joined the Muslim Brotherhood in 1982, when he was 30 years old, and was appointed chairman of its office in the Upper Egypt governorate of Minya. El-Katatni was elected a Minya MP in 2005 and headed the Muslim Brotherhood's bloc in parliament until 2010.
By contrast, Sorour joined the loyalist political establishment of Egypt under the regime of late president Gamal Abdel Nasser. Sorour was a member of Nasser's Arab Socialist Union (ASU) and later joined the Youth Organisation that was founded in the last years of the 1960s to act as a nucleus for a political party loyal to the regime. When Nasser died in 1970, he was succeeded by Anwar El-Sadat, who decided to dissolve ASU in 1977 and set up the National Democratic Party (NDP) in 1978, Sorour was among the first to move to the new ruling party. When Mubarak was deposed on 11 February, 2011, Sorour was a leading figure of the NDP's politburo.
In spite of educational and ideological differences, many believe that El-Katatni is no different from Sorour. Despite it being arguably too early to judge the performance of El-Katatni, several MPs, especially liberal and even Salafist ones, believe that two weeks is enough to come to a judgement. Some MPs — and press — believe that a secret deal was struck between the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and the Muslim Brotherhood. A major element of this deal is that El-Katatni be elected speaker of the new parliament in return for SCAF gaining immunity against any questioning in parliament.
According to Salafist MP Mamdouh Ismail, “El-Katatni adopts the same Sorour-style in running parliamentary debates." “He is always in favour of giving the floor to FJP deputies, not to mention that he is very strict in allocating a very small time limit to each deputy (usually two minutes) during the debates,” Ismail added.
El-Katatni also faces accusations that he is too strict in implementing the internal regulations of the Assembly. Farag Saber, chairman of the Association of Parliamentary Researchers, sent a memorandum to El-Katatni last week urging him to scrap the People’s Assembly’s 33-year-old internal regulations that place huge powers in the hands of the parliament speaker. “These regulations were drafted in 1979 when Egypt was under the old despotic rule of the NDP and must be scrapped to democratise the internal performance of parliament,” said Saber. He recalled that when El-Katatni was in the 2005-2010 People's Assembly, he was one of the Brotherhood's deputies who asked Sorour to amend the same internal regulations.
For his part, El-Katatni vowed that the People's Assembly regulations would be amended as soon as possible. He said this week that he urged the assembly’s Proposals and Complaints Committee to begin debating regulations drafted by MPs, in order that they could be discussed in a plenary session of the whole assembly as soon as possible.
In defending himself, El-Katatni said that he is very keen that “there is no time wasted during parliamentary debates.” “This means that each deputy should be capable of expressing his argument in a certain limit of time in order to allow as many deputies as possible have the floor,” said El-Katatni.
He also argued that “by no means am I biased towards FJP MPs.” “I adopt the general parliamentary rule that leading deputies of the party that gained the largest number of seats be given priority in taking the floor first, followed by the party next in number of seats, and so on,” El-Katatni said.
El-Katatni also strongly denied that he is biased against liberal MPs. “When I knew that some of them decided to stage a sit-in in the assembly, I asked the assembly’s secretary-general, Sami Mahran, that all necessary services be offered to them,” said El-Katanti. “The problem is that when some of them wanted to leave the parliament building for some time and then come back, I said they must be prevented from this due to security reasons,” he added. He also argued that “the problem with MPs is that they are fond of making 'shows' in front of satellite television cameras and making headlines in newspapers.” In El-Katatni’s words, “I will never allow private satellite television channels to dictate the rules of debate in the People's Assembly.”
On 2 February, and during an emergency meeting aimed to discuss the ramifications of the Port Said football stadium disaster, El-Katatni proposed stopping live television coverage of the meeting. The proposal was rejected by most deputies, including El-Katatni’s FJP colleagues.
El-Katatni also refused to take any action when the chairmen of several parliamentary committees refused to allow press correspondents to cover their meetings. Mahmoud Nafadi, chairman of the Parliamentary Correspondents’ Association, said: “this never happened when the corrupt NDP was in control of the Assembly and we have fears that the majority of MPs in this assembly — including liberal and leftist MPs — are against press freedoms."
“They are just fond of appearing on television cameras,” said Nafadi, adding that “it is also regrettable that El-Katatni never took any concrete step against new restrictions on press coverage of debates in the assembly’s committees.”