Egyptian MPs plan sanctions for Tawfik Okasha after dinner with Israeli ambassador

Gamal Essam El-Din , Saturday 27 Feb 2016

Egypt MP and high-profile TV anchor Tawfik Okasha insisted that his meeting with the Israeli ambassador last week did not go against the constitution or parliamentary rules

Tawfik Okasha
Tawfik Okasha (R), looks onvote to choose the head of the Egypt's Parliament late in Sunday's procedural and opening session at the main headquarters of Parliament in Cairo, Egypt, January 10, 2016. (Photo: Reuters)

When Egypt's parliament holds a plenary session on Sunday, colourful MP Tawfik Okasha will have to face the music, having scandalised his colleagues by inviting the Israeli ambassador to dinner.

A mixture of MPs, both independent and party-allied, have tabled requests with parliament speaker Ali Abdel-Al that asking that Okasha be punished for "committing the unprecedented crime of meeting with Israel's ambassador in Egypt" at his home in Daqahliya governorate.

The majority of MPs, led by novelist Youssef El-Qaeed, were angered by Okasha holding a meeting with Ambassador Haim Koren and talking about politics with him, in what they called "a violation of the Egyptian people's campaign aimed at halting any moves towards normalisation with Israeli officials.”

El-Qaeed, a presidential appointee to the house, told reporters on Saturday that a statement entitled "MPs against normalisation" will be delivered by the Social Justice parliamentary bloc during Sunday's session.

"After gathering the signatures of many MPs in support of our statement," said El-Qaeed, "we will ask speaker Abdel-Al to refer Okasha to either an ethics committee or let MPs vote whether Okasha be stripped of his parliamentary membership altogether."

Okasha is also facing the charge of insulting the speaker during an exchange last week.

According to El-Qaeed, "Okasha's meeting with Israel's ambassador represents a crime against Egypt's new parliament and its MPs."

"This was the first time in the history of Egypt's relations with the Israeli enemy that Israel's ambassador went outside Cairo to meet with an MP in his home," said El-Qaeed.

"While each Egyptian MP represents the nation as a whole, the nation still considers Israel as Egypt's first enemy, as long as it abuses the rights of the Palestinians," said El-Qaeed.

According to the statement, MPs were also appalled that Okasha had asked the Israeli ambassador to visit parliament. "MPs would rather set the building of Egypt's parliament on fire than have the Israeli ambassador visit it," said the statement.

The statement also directed a question to Prime Minister Sherif Ismail and Interior Minister Magdi Abdel-Ghaffar, requesting to know "how the Israeli ambassador was able to leave his home in Cairo to go to another governorate."

"Okasha is by no means authorised to invite any ambassadors - and Israel's ambassador in particular - to the Egyptian parliament," the statement argued.

The Social Justice bloc includes around eleven MPs, but its statement was able to gather the support of more than a hundred.

The “Support Egypt" coalition, another parliamentary bloc with more than 250 MPs, also announced that they condemn Okasha's meeting with Israel's ambassador and have said that they will not hesitate voting in favour of any decision against him.

Ihab Ghatati, an MP from Giza and a member of the Support Egypt coalition, told reporters last week that he would organise a sit-in for two hours each day if parliament failed to approve that Okasha's membership of the body be terminated.

Mostafa Bakry, an independent MP and journalist well-known for his fiery anti-American and anti-Israeli rhetoric, said he has also tabled an "urgent statement", requesting that Okasha be referred to questioning before a special parliamentary committee.

"Okasha's three-hour meeting with the Israeli ambassador on 24 February represents a violation of the national security of Egypt," said Bakri.
According to Bakri, Okasha has committed “three crimes.”

“First, he urged the Israeli ambassador to request his government mediate between Egypt and Ethiopia to help solve the problem of Ethiopia's Grand Nile Renaissance dam in exchange for providing Israel with 1 billion cubic metres of Egypt's quota of Nile water," said Bakry.

"The second crime is that he urged Israel to build 10 schools on Egyptian land in compensation for the Israeli air strikes that demolished Bahr Al-Baqr elementary school in Sharqiya governorate [in April 1970], and the third is that Okasha always likes to describe Egyptians as schizophrenic, refusing to consort with Israel despite having approved of a peace treaty with the Jewish state in 1979 in a public referendum."

Bakry queried Okasha's right to discuss highly sensitive and sovereign political and economic issues with the ambassador of a foreign country without prior approval.

MPs said Okasha's meeting with the ambassador contravenes Article 110 of the constitution and Article 370 of parliament's internal bylaws, stating that MPs who violate or fail to abide by the rules of their duties could lose their parliamentary membership upon the approval of two-thirds of MPs.

Okasha, a controversial media figure and presenter on his own Al-Faraeen channel, who often pins the blame for Egypt's problems on an

“American-Zionist conspiracy” strongly defended himself on Saturday in a meeting with a limited number of parliamentary correspondents.

Okasha said he had “full constitutional authority” to invite Israel's ambassador to his home, have dinner with him and discuss a variety of political issues.

"I know that such a move could represent an affront to the feelings of most Egyptians who still reject normalising relations with Israel," said Okasha.

"I tell those who aim to go too far to the extent of describing my meeting with Israel's ambassador as a crime and even threatening to organise a sit-in that what you do is just a kind of media show, and that you are still in 'kindergarten' politics."

Okasha cited Minister of Parliamentary Affairs Magdi El-Agati as stating that "Egypt parliament's by-laws does not include any article that prevents MPs from consorting with Israel."

By contrast, argued Okasha, the Egyptian constitution stresses that the state must fully respect its international agreements, not to mention that Egypt and Israel have full diplomatic relations.

Okasha claimed that many constitutional experts assured him that it would be a grave mistake by Abdel-Al if he allowed MPs to target him with requests and urgent statements on Sunday.

"They told me that Article 93 of the constitution obliges the state to respect its international agreements and that Article 151 grants the president of the republic the right to sign and ratify foreign agreements and treaties only upon parliament's approval," said Okasha, adding that "this means that MPs and parliament are granted a say in the state's policies and treaties and how they should be implemented."

According to Okasha, the Camp David accords in 1978 and the peace treaty in 1979, signed by late president Anwar El-Sadat, is clear in stating that both Egypt and Israel must do their best to have normal ties in terms of forging full diplomatic, economic and cultural relations, and halt any kind of boycott or hurdles that might block free movement of goods and individuals between the two countries.

Leftist MP Kamal Ahmed told reporters that although he is against Okasha meeting with Israel's ambassador on personal grounds he agrees that neither the constitution nor parliament's internal by-laws impose penalties on MPs who might contact Israel officials.

Deputy speaker El-Sayed El-Sherif accused Okasha of “grandstanding.”

"This is a maverick MP who wants to steal the show all the time," said El-Sherif. But he warned that "any action against Okasha could send a message that Egypt's parliament is acting against the state's policies and its accords with foreign countries."

"I think Okasha's punishment should be left to the people and voters, rather than to parliament and MPs," he said.

An Israeli state-affiliated news website, Al-Masdar, reported on 24 February that Koren was surprised by Okasha inviting him to a dinner meeting at his home.

"I know that Egyptian MPs still insist on boycotting Israel, but I know that MP Okasha has his own parameters," said Koren according to the report, adding that "Okasha was able to win the admiration of millions of Egyptians who are always keen to watch his talk show on his private channel Al-Faraeen."

"Okasha on last week's show extended an invitation to me to meet him in his home to discuss the economic problems that Egyptian people are suffering from," said Koren.

"Okasha told me that he believes that Israel is the key to solving Egypt's problems,” the ambassador said. 

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