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Egypt’s judiciary under siege

Mervat Ayoub

26 Apr 2013 7:24 pm

Egyptians call it the “Slaughter of the judiciary”. They use the term to describe the efforts by the Muslim Brotherhood (MB)-led ruling regime to malign the last State institution that has remained insubordinate to them, and that has refused to bend its rulings to suit MB intents.  

At loggerheads
Since the 25 January 2011 Revolution in Egypt and the rise of the Islamists, the Egyptian judiciary has been challenged on account of rulings that went contrary to the Islamist regime’s liking. First came the ruling by the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) last June, two weeks before Mohamed Mursi was sworn in as president, to dissolve the MB-majority People’s Assembly—the lower house of Egypt’s parliament—on grounds that the elections that brought it in were non-constitutional. When Mursi became president, he took the decision in July 2012 to reinstate the dissolved parliament, but had to go back on his decision when the judiciary confronted him with the non-legality of the move.
September and October of the same year saw several court cases that contested the legality of the Constituent Assembly which was then writing a new constitution for Egypt, and the Shura Council—the upper house of Egypt’s parliament—both of which had a sweeping Islamist majority. While all indicators pointed to court rulings that would invalidate both bodies, Islamist demonstrators surrounded the SCC headquarters in Cairo for three weeks, holding violent protests and banning the judges from reaching the courtroom. President Mursi said this was a peaceful expression of opinion.
In November, the President cast his bombshell ‘Constitutional Declaration’ that gave him far-reaching powers, pronounced his decisions beyond contest in court, and declared both the Shura Council and Constituent Assembly immune to being dissolved by court. He also removed the then prosecutor general Abdel-Meguid Mahmoud and appointed his handpicked Talaat Ibrahim Abdullah. Late last month a court ruling declared the President’s move illegal and reinstated Mahmoud, but the presidency is contesting the ruling.

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Head-on
Even though the Constitutional Declaration has time and again been declared by law experts to lack all legal and constitutional backing, President Mursi held on to it and to all the resultant actions. He thus firmly confirmed he was at loggerheads with Egypt’s judiciary whose independence was then clearly a thing of the past.
Yet it took till the last two weeks for the confrontation between President Mursi and his Islamist regime on one hand and the judiciary on the other to come to a head-on collision when the government proposed a bill to “reform the judiciary”. The bill, which would impose mandatory retirement on judges at 60 instead of 70, would at one stroke force out some 3500 judges. It would also ban the courts from reviewing or overturning Mursi’s Constitutional Declaration. The non-MB public and media saw the bill as one meant to purge the judiciary of elements that insisted on not subordinating themselves to the Islamist regime.
Apart from the SCC rulings that angered Islamists, the appeals courts had acquitted or released some former Mubarak officials charged with corruption and abuse of power. Mubarak and his former interior minister were sentenced to life imprisonment last year for complicity in the killing of hundreds of demonstrators during the 2011 Revolution, but an appeals court threw out the verdict in January and ordered a retrial, which has already stalled once and is due to start on 11 May.
Friday 19 April saw thousands of MB Islamists surround the High Court in central Cairo in a wide, violent protest against the judiciary calling for the passage of the law to “purge the judiciary”.

Justice Minister resigns
The attempt to purge the judiciary polarised Egyptian politics again, deepening the rift between the Islamists and non-Islamists, and confirming opposition suspicions that the MB are after monopolising power rather than sharing it.
Egypt’s Justice Minister Ahmed Mekky tendered his resignation in protest at “the assault” on the judiciary by President Mursi’s Islamist backers that would give the executive too much control over the judiciary. An outspoken supporter of judicial reform during the rule of the former president Hosni Mubarak, Mekky was named justice minister in August in the first government appointed by President Mursi.
At the time he came to office, Mekky was widely respected as a reformer, but he quickly came under attack from critics who said he had abandoned his principles. Mekky’s resignation last week caught Egyptians by surprise, and was a blow to the Mursi regime.  Two days following Mekky’s resignation, the President’s top legal advisor Fouad Gadallah also resigned.
Sunday and Monday, the Islamists stepped up their campaign against the judiciary, with calls by the Salafi leading figure Assem Abdel-Maged for the public not to wait for the law to pass, but to themselves storm the homes of judges and the courthouses and to assault them and those who were inside. “We are willing to die for Egypt to become a full Islamic State, and we will never allow Mursi to fall,” the Islamist politician Mohamed Abu-Samra said.    
Commenting on Mr Abdel-Maged’s words, Judge Tahani al-Gibali said that such hostile remarks were not new. “The problem is not with what was said,” she insisted, “it’s with the fact that no official has responded with any action whatsoever. Such remarks should never go unaccounted for; they constitute flagrant incitement to violence and, as such, warrant legal action. But the prosecutor general behaves as though he has heard nothing.”

Taking the case international
President Mursi held emergency talks with the State-affiliated Supreme Council of the Judiciary and the prosecutor-general, and pledged to respect the independence of the judiciary. He said nothing, however, on whether the divisive judicial reform law would go through the Shura as originally planned.
Egypt’s judges, represented in their independent Judges Club—the equivalent of a syndicate—rejected the President’s move. A number of members of the board of the Judges Club told the media that Mursi’s talk was no more than the flowery rhetoric he is accustomed to using, but steered clear away from the real problem and the demands by the judiciary for independence. They said they had deep reservations on President Mursi’s invitation to meet with them, asking for some practical move first to show his goodwill and his serious intention to resolve the problem.
Judge Ahmed al-Zind, head of the Judges Club, said that the President disregarded the indignity inflicted upon the judges during the Friday protest; “he did not even acknowledge it or apologise for it,” Judge Zind said. “We are going ahead with taking our plight to the international community.”
A communiqué issued by the Club said that: “For the last time, and with all due courtesy, we require a resolution to the predicament between the judges and the regime. We demand that the current prosecutor general, whose appointment is illegal, should be dismissed; and the attempt to take over the judicial institution by the Shura should be halted.”
There are well-established international standards for the independence of the judiciary, the communiqué said, and Egypt—in its capacity as a signatory—should respect them.

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Who’s the real president?
The Shura’s legislative committee approved the draft laws of the judicial authority on Wednesday morning and referred it to the house.
The Judges’ Club held a meeting which was attended by some 6000 judges Wednesday evening, during which they announced their full rejection of the draft laws discussed by the Shura. They declared they would invite the United Nations special commissioner on the independence of the judiciary and that of the African committee to visit Egypt and hold an investigation into the threats by the Egyptian ruling regime against Egypt’s judges.
Watani International went to press as Friday promised to see full-scale demonstrations by both the Islamist supporters and secular opponents of the judiciary bill.
Analysts see the assault of the judiciary as a move of self-defence by the Islamists who fear imminent rulings that would throw them into severe disarray and might even rob them of their post-Revolution gains.
Islamist sources who talked to the media, notably to the news site www.youm7.com, admitted there has been a flurry of action recently to rally for the passage of the law of the judicial authority before court rulings that are expected shortly. Among these rulings is one that may rule that the results of the last presidential elections in several constituencies are illegal, owing to vote rigging, terrorising citizens into staying away from the polls, and banning the Copts from the ballots by force. If issued, law and constitution expert Ahmed Shawqy says, such a ruling would mean that Mr Mursi’s presidency is illegal and that his rival Ahmed Shafik is the democratically elected president.
Yet it was not always so between the Islamists and the judiciary; relations were never so strained. During the Mubarak times, the judiciary issued several rulings that upheld the rights of Islamists. The court invalidated the parliamentary elections of 1984, 1987, and 2000. Thanks to the judges the Islamists are today fighting so hard, 88 MBs made their way into Parliament in 2005.

Photos by Nasser Sobhy

WATANI International
28 April 2013


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