CAIRO (AP) — An Egyptian lawmaker and popular TV talk show host was expelled from parliament Wednesday over a meeting he had with the Israeli ambassador to Egypt.
Egypt became the first Arab country to make peace with Israel in 1979, and the two governments work closely together on security issues, but anti-Israel sentiment runs high among most Egyptians, who view any direct interactions with Israelis as taboo.
The controversy over the meeting began when the ambassador, Haim Koren, posted a picture on the embassy's Facebook page last week of himself and Egyptian lawmaker Tawfiq Okasha during their meeting.
Okasha's expulsion from the 596-seat legislature was decided in a vote Wednesday by an overwhelming majority of lawmakers and came three days after another lawmaker hit him with his shoe inside the chamber to protest his meeting with Koren. A total of 490 lawmakers took part in the vote, with 465 supporting the motion to kick him out. Sixteen voted against and nine abstained.
Among those who voted against Okasha's expulsion was lawmaker Mohammed Anwar Sadat, a nephew of the late Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat, who signed the groundbreaking 1979 peace treaty with Israel.
Okasha, who has a reputation for being a maverick, was kept out of the chamber during the vote. He declined to speak to reporters when he left the building with the vote almost completed. Speaker Ali Abdel-Al, with whom Okasha has had several run-ins, declared his seat vacant.
Abdel-Al, seeking to head off charges that the legislature was anti-Israeli, told lawmakers that Egypt respected the country's diplomatic commitments, including the peace treaty with Israel. Lawmakers who supported Okasha's expulsion said he was punished for meeting with a foreign diplomat without the legislature's authorization or advance coordination with "relevant" agencies.
"He has behaved in a manner unbecoming of a deputy or the legislature," said lawmaker Ahmed Nashaat Mansour.
Okasha said he met with Koren in order to serve Egypt's interests, and that they discussed the Grand Renaissance Dam being built by Ethiopia, which Egypt fears will cut into its share of the Nile.
"They (Israel) are the ones building the Renaissance Dam, are we fooling ourselves?" Okasha claimed, alluding to a conspiracy theory that Israel is helping Ethiopia build the dam to harm Cairo's interests.
Emmanuel Nahshon, spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, said at the time that the meeting had taken place at Okasha's invitation. "The importance of the meeting was in the fact that it took place," he said.
Egypt and Israel closely coordinate on security issues, particularly those having to do with the Sinai Peninsula, a mostly desert area that borders Israel and whose northern part is torn by an insurgency waged by Islamic militants.
Hardly a week goes by without Israeli security officials flying to Cairo to meet with their Egyptian counterparts.
But most Egyptians associate Israel with the four wars the countries fought against each other from 1948 to 1973 and are deeply opposed to Israel's policies toward the Palestinians.
Okasha, who has long trumpeted anti-Western conspiracy theories, has been at the center of a series of controversies since his failed bid to win the speaker's job at the 596-seat legislature.
He has recently claimed that Egypt's security agencies are running the country and that a close confidante of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi is directly intervening in politics.
He has also claimed that the Egyptian leader had sought Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's help to convince President Barack Obama to improve relations with Cairo following the 2013 military overthrow, led by el-Sissi, of Egypt's first freely elected president, the Islamist Mohammed Morsi.
Okasha was thrown out of the chamber for unruly behavior late last month. He later complained that he was being consistently denied the floor by Abdel-Al, the speaker. Asked why that was the case, he replied: "Because Tawfiq Okasha is popular in the streets and people love him, but they want just one person to be loved in Egypt: His Excellency President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi."