CAIRO, Egypt — It was quite the sight to behold: Hundreds of Islamists, once hunted by the regime of former President Hosni Mubarak, made their way to the parliament building in downtown Cairo where they presided over the inauguration session of the country’s first freely-elected people’s assembly in decades.
Crowds of supporters, many outwardly Islamist with long beards and zebeb — the Arabic plural for the purple bruises on the forehead that indicate how often one prostrates in prayer — showered parliament members from the winning Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), and the runner-up Salafist Al-Nour party, with flowers and cheers as they entered the building.
“I never imagined in my life that the Muslim Brotherhood would be leading the parliament in Egypt,” said 35-year-old Ahmed Ibrahim, a Brotherhood activist who came to show his support for the long-persecuted movement. “There are good omens everywhere today. God has blessed us.”
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Following a popular, street-led revolt against Mubarak a year ago, largely free legislative elections were held over a period of six weeks beginning in November. The FJP won a near majority with 40 percent of the 498 available seats.
The parliament is now tasked with appointing a 100-member assembly to draft the country’s new constitution, but under a rocky, military-led transition process, the body’s actual powers remain unclear.
In the opening session today, the assembly elected prominent Brotherhood leader and FJP party member, Mohamed El-Katatny, as parliament speaker. The meeting was raucous and chaotic at times, with shouting and jeering that drew comparisons from some to the United Kingdom’s lively House of Commons.
Across the city, Egyptians could be seen crowding around café television sets to watch the session broadcast live.
If Egyptian politics were rowdy and dynamic on the inside, they were equally so on the outside. Amid heavy military and police security, thousands of protesters gathered on the streets leading to parliament to air political grievances and voice concerns to their new representatives.
A handful of loud, chanting marchers — including socialists, artists and even tour guides hit hard by Egypt’s recession — converged on the parliament building, ringed by barbed wire and riot police.
The presence of crowds of revolutionaries, who led the anti-Mubarak uprising in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and have since scoffed at the transition process they see as illegitimate, underscores Egypt’s still very deep political divisions and the ongoing fight for legitimacy in the post-revolt period.
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Brotherhood and Al-Nour party members tussled with protesters over the assembly’s legitimacy and the wisdom of confronting police and military in the streets in order to extract democratic concessions from the ruling generals.
Many activists lambast the Brotherhood for being too soft on Egypt’s increasingly repressive caretaker military government, known as the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF).
Liberal activists want to demonstrate their political prowess on the streets of Egypt, calling for an immediate transfer of power to civilian authorities and a swift end to military trials for civilians.
The FJP says through elections and parliamentary clout, they can ease the military from power.
But protesters are gearing up for mass demonstrations on Wednesday, which marks the one-year anniversary of the beginning of the uprising.
“We are here to protest for our equality, because we still don’t see equality one year later,” said 25-year-old Mohammed Farouq, who was injured in last year’s protests and still walks with crutches.
“If the parliament talks about anything other than removing SCAF from power, then they don’t love this country,” he said. “I want them to hear me now and January 25: I want SCAF to leave.”
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But not all those headed to Cairo’s iconic Tahrir Square on Wednesday are young activist-revolutionaries that have so far spear-headed protests.
Sanaa Ahmed, an older woman who wears a full-face veil, was also at the parliament protests today and plans to make her voice heard as well on Jan. 25.
Her young son was killed by police while protesting in the uprising last year. She carried a large poster with a picture of his smiling face on one side and his bloodied corpse on the other.
Only one policeman was convicted for killing protesters during the revolt, and many feel the police force’s culture of impunity — that they sought to overthrow — remains.
Asked if she thought a Brotherhood-led parliament would help bring justice for her dead son, Ahmed fired back: “We don’t trust anyone. Where is the justice?”
“I will go to the square on January 25,” she said. “I will go back to where my son was killed to ask for justice.”