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Is Egypt learning parliamentary etiquette from Israel?

08/02/2012

A year into the revolution, Egypt’s political and cultural landscape is changing. Islamic politicians are growing increasingly self-confidant as the country’s diminishing liberals go on the defensive.

A striking example of this trend took place in the Egyptian parliament this week. Islamist MP Mamdouh Ismail spontaneously began sounding the traditional call to prayer at noon in the session hall, to the protest of other MPs and house speaker Muhammad Saad Katatni. “I did not permit you to do this, there is a mosque for that,” Katatni reprimanded the MP-turned-Muazzin.”You are no more Islamic than us.”

Is this merely the dramatic gimmick of a media-starved parliamentarian or is it an indication of a deeper, more meaningful trend in Egyptian politics?

If you ask veteran Egyptian actor Omar Sharif, he will confirm the latter. In an interview with Arab TV channel MBC, Sharif expressed his angst on the prospect that Egyptian actresses may be lashed under Egypt’s new constitution, if the phrase “on condition that it [the civil law] does not contradict Islamic Sharia” is inserted into it.

MP Mamdouh Ismail did not wait for the constitution change. He added the phrase himself while taking his vow for office, provoking a media controversy.

“This elastic sentence makes me very uneasy regarding the situation and future of Egyptian art, which may resemble Iranian art overnight,” said Omar Sharif. “[In Iran] an actress was lashed for revealing her hair while acting.”

Another Egyptian actor who already paid the price for his art is leading comedian Adel Imam. Imam was sentenced in absentia to three months in prison and a 1000 Egyptian Pound ($165 US) fine for insulting Islamic symbols, including beards.

It seems like Imam, an icon of Egyptian cinema and theatre will not be returning to Egypt any time soon.

But perhaps all of this is actually Egypt’s version of democracy?

I smiled to myself when I saw Ismail, because he reminded me of how similar Israel’s parliamentary scene can be to that of the Arab world. Televised provocations are nothing new in Israel: just a few weeks ago MK Anastasia Mikhaeli splashed a glass of water on her parliamentary rival Ghaleb Majadleh. MKs from Kadima have an affinity for waving various objects in protest during parliamentary sessions. We never saw things like this in Egypt, but perhaps they are finally learning a lesson in parliamentary democracy from their northern neighbors?