Staffers Meet Egyptian Lawmakers

Posted April 8, 2008 at 4:48pm

When John Ohly looks back on a recent trip to Egypt, he remembers the pyramids, the Bibliotheca in Alexandria and the bus drivers magically weaving in and out of traffic. But the chance to meet with workers from Egypt’s legislative branch also made a lasting impression.

Ohly, a staff assistant for the Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, was one of six young Hill staffers selected for the American Council of Young Political Leaders’ parliamentary exchange to Egypt last month. His fellow travelers worked for both major political parties and for lawmakers representing a range of states.

The goal of the trip was to promote a mutual understanding of each country’s government and to cultivate discussion of international affairs. During the weeklong visit, the group met with Egyptian governmental leaders, professors, statesmen and others to learn the Egyptian perspective on global and U.S. challenges.

“It was great to get a ground-level view of another country and their view on us from one-on-one interaction,” Ohly said. “It was a tremendous eye-opening experience they provide.”

The program is supported by a grant from the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural affairs and fits with the department’s goal of fostering a better international understanding of U.S. foreign policy objectives, ACYPL spokesman Mike Garretson said.

Prospective participants must be nominated by alumni of ACYPL programs or a lawmaker. Garretson said the programs focus on “rising stars” on Congressional staffs.

“The emphasis is on finding people who can use the information as they progress with responsibility,” Garretson said.

Ohly said Egypt’s legislative branch seems similar to that of the United States on paper, but the trip helped him learn that there are actually big differences. The branch consists of the People’s Assembly and the Shura Council. The Shura Council is considered the higher of the two houses, but the People’s Assembly, which is much larger, has more power.

And unlike the United States’ two-party system, Egypt is dominated by one large party with many smaller and separate parties trailing behind.

One aspect of Egypt’s government that Ohly said he found interesting is that, in contrast to the United States where the Congress hashes out budgets, Egypt’s president and prime minister decide on a nonnegotiable fixed budget.

Ohly noted that his peers had diverse interests. Some were focused on foreign affairs and defense, while others zeroed in on issues such as human rights or education. The diversity allowed participants to learn from one another as well as from the people they met on the trip.

And the exchange provided much more than a civics lesson. The group experienced culture firsthand by visiting local restaurants and bazaars, and talking with people on the streets, Ohly said.

Traffic in Cairo was a new experience. There were no street signs or lights to direct cars, Ohly said, and vehicles spilled over the three lanes on the road, sometimes creating an extra two traffic lanes. Pedestrians crossed in front of moving cars regularly.

“It’s a giant game of ‘Frogger,’” Ohly said. “But it was also fluid, and our bus driver was amazing at getting this huge bus through the city just day in and day out.”

Between meetings and dodging traffic, the trip taught the importance of building cooperative relationships with foreign countries, Ohly said.

“I learned Egypt is really a country that is so pivotal in that region and how important our relationship with them is,” Ohly said. “It’s programs like this that will help improve and sustain relationships between nations.”