Opposition Unites To Protest Egypt's New Parliament

Egypt's controversial new parliament convened Monday, and it was filled almost entirely with members of the ruling party. Many in the Arab nation expect the parliament to rubber stamp anything President Mubarak and his party want. But it is also prompting opponents of his regime to join forces as they rarely have before.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Let's go next to Egypt, where the political opposition is trying to find its way in the state where one man holds all the power. President Hosni Mubarak's ruling party dominates Egypt's parliament. And even opposition leaders who made gains in recent years have lately lost them again. That was plain when a new parliament convened yesterday. Yet the opposition has not given up, as NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports.

(Soundbite of protest)

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Interim government protests in front of the Supreme Court here in Cairo are hardly new, but what was different on Sunday was how many groups took part.

(Soundbite of protest)

SARHADDI NELSON: There were former opposition lawmakers and their parties. There were secular activists from across the political spectrum. There were members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood. All of them side by side and waving banners in a raucous protest declaring the new parliament null and void. But they didn't get far.

The crowd was corralled into a corner by nervous state security agents and riot policemen who outnumbered the protesters about three to one. Still, organizers say the gathering had the desired effect. They say it united many different voices here in Egypt calling for change.

This kind of unified approach is what many Egyptians believe offers the only real hope for democratic reforms, especially if the unified movement can persuade Egypt's key allies to pressure Mubarak as they did in 2005. Analysts say that pressure, most of it by then-President Bush, led to the election of the most democratic parliament Egypt had seen in half a century, one in which nearly a quarter of the seats were held by opposition members, including the Muslim Brotherhood.

Mr. HAMDEEN SABAHY (El Karama Party): (Foreign language spoken)

SARHADDI NELSON: Just about all of those lawmakers, like Hamdeen Sabahy of the El Karama Party, are no longer in parliament. Most lost their seats last month in an election that was marred by allegations of ballot stuffing and voter intimidation. The rest withdrew in protest during the subsequent runoff.

The former lawmakers, including Mustafa Gindi, who is with the largest secular opposition party, called Wafd, plan to create a, quote, "parallel parliament."

Mr. MUSTAFA GINDI (Wafd Party): The result shows that in Egypt we do have a problem. We do have a nation who do not participate, that we need to give them a shock to make them move and go to the street.

SARHADDI NELSON: Some analysts say the lawmakers could prove more effective on the outside than they did as a minority in parliament, especially if they join with other reform leaders, like Mohamed el Baradei, an Egyptian Nobel Peace Prize winner who is calling for civil disobedience and a boycott of next year's presidential polls.

Samer Shehata is an assistant professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University.

Professor SAMER SHEHATA (Georgetown University): Now, we're hoping - or some of us hope, at least - that the opposition will get their act together, as it were, learn from their previous mistakes, and mount an effective, broad-based, non-violent and creative opposition.

SARHADDI NELSON: But members of the ruling National Democratic Party dismiss what the opposition is doing as sour grapes. Hossam Badrawy serves on the ruling party's board of directors. He says the issue isn't fraud, which he claims was too miniscule to sway the results. It's that the Muslim Brotherhood, which controlled most of the opposition seats, lost.

Mr. HOSSAM BADRAWY (Board of Directors, National Democratic Party): The vacuum was not filled up by the legitimate opposition party. I understand the frustration, I sympathize with that. I think we have more challenge as a party to not only win seats but to empower more legitimate parties to be present in the elections years to come.

SARHADDI NELSON: Badrawy says there will also be a lot of pressure on the new parliament to prove to voters that it can meet their needs and serve as a watchdog for their interests, even without opposition members.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Cairo.

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