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Egyptians want new parliament to 'hear our voice'

Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images

Demonstrations continue next to the Egyptian Parliament as they hold their first session since the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak on Monday in Cairo, Egypt.

CAIRO – Egyptians were greeted by a series of firsts Monday:  Egypt's first democratically elected parliament and first predominantly Islamist parliament convened for their first session.  

New lawmakers were greeted by a now familiar sight.  Roughly 1,000 chanting demonstrators greeted them – despite being kept at a distance from the parliament building by riot police, metal barriers and sharp shooters mounted on roofs. 

They had come to hold lawmakers accountable for a wide variety of promises they believe are essential for the new Egypt.

From labor laws to honoring martyrs
Shima'a Sa'ib, a 28-year-old engineeer from Cairo, stopped chanting for a minute to explain why she came to protest. “We want them to hear our voice, to give us rights and to give rights to the families of the martyrs,” she said, referring to those killed in the revolution.  

Mahmoud Hussein held a poster filled with photos of people who were killed when police opened fire on them near a police station during the revolution. He pointed to the picture of a father of two who was killed.

"He was my neighbor.  His family was never compensated by the government,” said Hussein. “Now their landlord lets them stay for free. They can't afford to pay rent.” He fears that the new politicians will also ignore their needs.  "They are in power now, they will forget those in need."

Charlene Gubash / NBC News

Mahmoud Hussein holds a poster showing people killed during the revolution.

Ahmed Desouki, a lanky university student, explained in perfect English why he had come.  "I am here for worker's rights because workers have been suffering from this capitalist government. We need better wages, stop privatization and make the labor unions stronger."  Asked if he thought the new parliament would meet his demands, his reply was swift.  "No. I don't have hope.”

Desouki also expressed distrust about the cozy relationship between the military government known as the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF, and the Islamists.

Hazdem Mohammed, a 25-year-old computer system administrator from Cairo and a member of the April 6 Youth Movement, the main organization behind the revolution, agreed.

“The people in parliament stole the revolution. The Muslim Brotherhood stole it in order to come to power,” said Mohammed. “The Brotherhood is like Hamas in Gaza, once they come to power, they will never leave.  If the revolution was on the right track, those in the military would be in prison for killing protesters."  He said the April 6 Youth Movement plans to continue organizing opposition to the government. 

Pediatrician Hazem Nasser said he was there to remind lawmakers that they are accountable for upholding some of the larger goals of the revolution. "Nothing has changed in Egypt since the revolution. Maybe they will be dictators, too, if people don’t stand up and tell them right from wrong.  If we don't do that, maybe 500 Mubaraks will arise." 

Looking for more man-friendly family law
Still others, like Salah Hassan and Ahmed Ibrahim, were there for very personal reasons: to protest some of the more female-friendly divorce laws introduced under former President Hosni Mubarak that give mothers preference in child custody disputes.

Charlene Gubash / NBC News

Salah Hassan, left, and Ahmed Ibrahim, right, demonstrate for change in family law to favor men.

Both men said their divorced wives had prevented them from seeing their children for the past 10 years, so they were hopeful that the majority Islamist parliament would uphold religious Muslim laws that are more favorable to men. 

Under the current law, women gain child custody in divorce cases until the children are 15 years old, at which time the child can decide who he or she wants to live with. Mothers are also allowed to stay in their homes while they have custody.

But under Islamic law, the father would get the child and the home when boys reach the age of 7 and girls reach the age of 9. 

"I may not agree with the Muslim Brotherhood in other things but for this reason, I voted for them," said Ibrahim, a civil engineer. “I have not seen my child for 10 years."  He also wants to revoke a woman’s right to divorce with ease.  "She just called and told me, I am divorcing you and taking your child and your house.”

Ibrahim reckoned there were as many as 300 others there who were also protesting to overturn Egypt's moderate family laws.

With all of the diverse issues, it will be a wonder what the parliament can get done, but the protesters seem determined to at least make their demands heard.

See Photoblog: Egypt parliament opens for the first time following the fall of Mubarak