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‘The hall is not with you’: Speaker Abdel Aal battles internal opposition on multiple fronts

Ali Abdel Aal, Egypt’s domineering speaker of parliament, is facing stiff internal opposition on multiple fronts for the first time since he assumed the post three and a half years ago. 

Long-simmering tensions surfaced during a parliamentary session on Monday when a majority of MPs — represented by the Alliance to Support Egypt and the Nation’s Future Party bloc — along with the government, represented by the Minister of Parliamentary Affairs, Omar Marwan, united against Abdel Aal in a sharp dispute over a proposed amendment to a housing law. The raucous debate led MP Kamel Ahmed to send a note urging Abdel Aal to end the session, saying, “You are not in control, the hall is not with you.”

According to parliamentary sources, Abdel Aal is also in a dispute with the secretary general of Parliament, and has lost the support of “sovereign entities” [an Arabic term that refers to state institutions — such as the intelligence agencies and the presidency — that constitute the real centers of power in the state] because of what they regard as an imperious attitude and strident language that one source described as “shocking.”

On Monday, the differences came into sharp relief during a debate over two proposals, one from the government and the other from the parliamentary Housing Committee, to amend Egypt’s old rent law. The government amendment proposes abolishing the old rent system for non-residential units that are leased to legal entities, such as companies or associations, in compliance with a ruling by the Supreme Constitutional Court last year. The Housing Committee amendment, which Abdel Aal supports, is similar, but includes abolishing the old rent system for commercial units leased to individuals as well.

The dispute began when Marwan, the Minister of Parliamentary Affairs, addressed the chamber and said the government proposal adheres to the court ruling. “If the Constitutional Court wanted to cancel the old rent of commercial units to ordinary people it would have said so in its ruling,” Marwan said, and went on to describe the Housing Committee’s proposal as “unconstitutional.” His comments were met with loud applause by the majority of MPs in attendance.

A visibly angered Abdel Aal called for the “unconstitutional” comment to be struck from the record, saying, “Parliament decides what is constitutional and what is unconstitutional, otherwise it has no role.”

Marwan demanded he be allowed to respond, but Abdel Aal would not yield him the floor, saying, “You clearly made your remarks so that lawmakers do not criticize the bill, but I understand very well what’s going on and I will not accept that this body be insulted. According to the Constitution, Parliament has the right to debate all matters and the members of this chamber enjoy complete freedom to express any view.”

In defiance of Abdel Aal, the head of the Alliance to Support Egypt Abdel Hady al-Qasaby said the coalition also backed the government’s proposal, and added that the Housing Committee proposal would require community dialogue.

The head of the Nation’s Future Party’s parliamentary bloc, Atef Nasser, also announced his party’s support for the government amendment, saying that the other proposal would result in the revocation of thousands of leases to small pharmacies, as well as other business sectors. Abdel Aal responded by asserting, “Pharmacies are making a profit and we know how much they are making, and I would remind you that a small pharmacy in a private compound is worth 18 million pounds.”

The dispute was not caused solely by differences over the old rent law, according to a source in Parliament’s General Secretariat, but was the manifestation of tensions that have been brewing for some time over what the majority parliamentary blocs, along with the General Secretariat, regard as Abdel Aal’s desire to control the decisions of the legislative body. The source said the speaker has recently been engaged in a number of disagreements with MPs of the Alliance to Support Egypt and the Nation’s Future Party, and said the latter believes that the sovereign entities are opposed to Abdel Aal and no longer support him.

There have been similar internal disagreements with Abdel Aal in the past, though the breadth of the current backlash appears to be unprecedented.

In May, Abdel Aal accused Nasser of directing MPs to vote in favor of a drug bill and of trying to assert control over Parliament. The Nation’s Future Party responded with an official statement denouncing Abdel Aal’s accusations and saying that the party represents one of the centers of power within Parliament. It said the speaker had a responsibility to avoid personal differences getting in the way of the workings of the legislative body.

Abdel Aal smoothed over differences at a gathering during Ramadan to break the fast, saying the dispute was a “passing cloud” and that his words should be taken as “from a father to a son.” He went on to praise the Nation’s Future MPs, saying they “represented a respectful and worthy model during the drafting of laws and during the constitutional amendments.”

The source said that the speaker has lost the confidence of those around him. He pointed out that there are currently serious differences between Abdel Aal and Parliament’s Secretary General and aides, which might prompt the speaker to appoint a new team at the  General Secretariat that he sees as more loyal.

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