CAIRO – Egypt's government asked parliament Wednesday to prioritize legislation to organize parliamentary elections, regulate the media and fight corruption as the upper chamber held its first session with temporary new powers granted by the constitution.
The Islamist-dominated Shura Council, the traditionally toothless upper house, was granted temporary legislative powers under the new constitution and began its work a day after the official results of the referendum were released, showing the charter passed with a nearly 64 percent "yes" vote. It will legislate until elections for a new lower house are held within two months.
The disputed, Islamist-drafted constitution deeply divided the nation, though its supporters insisted it would pave the way for more stability in Egypt and the building up of state institutions.
President Mohammed Morsi has had legislative powers for months since a court dissolved the law-making lower house of parliament.
In its first act after the constitution passed, the Shura Council convened to swear in 90 new members appointed by Morsi. Two-thirds of the council's 270 members are elected, and one-third are appointed by the president.
Speaking to the council, the Cabinet minister in charge of parliamentary affairs, Mohammed Mahsoub, said the government will prepare new legislation for parliament to discuss, including a law to regulate the upcoming parliamentary elections, anti-corruption laws, and laws to organize Egypt's efforts to recover money from corrupt officials from the era of ousted President Hosni Mubarak.
Mahsoub said such bills can be ready as early as next week, when the council convenes again for its regular working session.
He said the government also wants to draft laws to revise maximum and minimum wages, expand social insurance coverage and regulate the media, as well as institute Egypt's first freedom of information act. Such bills, he said, are in line with the new constitution.
"I congratulate the Egyptian people on behalf of the government for the passing of the constitution of the second republic, which establishes a modern democratic state where the people's voices are heard and where injustice, dictatorship, repression, nepotism and corruption take a back seat," Mahsoub told the session.
"At this critical time for the nation, this respected council is required to pass a set of laws for the state to complete building its institutions," he said.
Mahsoub called on the opposition to join in national reconciliation and participate in state institutions.
The main opposition group has rejected the constitutional process and questioned the legitimacy of the charter itself, saying it was rushed through without enough national consensus.
The largely liberal and secular opposition has rejected presidential appointments to the upper house. It says it will instead contest the upcoming parliamentary elections and hopes to achieve a sizeable representation to challenge the constitution.
The opposition will be watching the Shura Council to see whether new legislation increases civil liberties and addresses poverty and social inequalities -- or increases the ability of the state to crack down on its critics and impose an Islamist rule, as many fear.
Critics say the new constitution enshrines Islamic rule in Egypt, restricts freedoms and ignores the rights of women and minorities.
Mahsoub addressed growing fears in Egypt of an impending economic crisis.
"The government reassures all about the economic situation," said Mahsoub. "We don't have an economic problem; essentially it is a political problem that is affecting the economic situation ... We call for reconciliation to impact positively on the economy."