Egypt’s judges battle to counter threat to their independence

When a delegation from Human Rights Watch scheduled a meeting last week with Egyptian judges who have been pressing for an independent judiciary, neither side foresaw the ferocious campaign of vilification that would erupt in the state-owned Egyptian press.

The judges – who have been defying the government for a year by calling publicly for a new law guaranteeing their independence and refusing to cover up election fraud – were accused in the newspapers of undermining the dignity of their office.

As for Human Rights Watch, it was branded a Zionist organisation that does the bidding of the Jewish lobby in Washington.

The outcry led to the meeting being called off by the Judges Club, the elected professional association that has been leading the campaign for judicial independence.

“We are disappointed,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “Our main interest is to help promote the independence of the judiciary. The judges have been the [most important] check on government misconduct in Egypt.”

The meeting’s cancellation highlights the difficulties faced by the Egyptian judges in a year likely to prove crucial for the future of the judiciary. Parliament is expected this year to vote upon a new law on the judiciary drafted by the government and so far kept under wraps.

At stake is the independence of the only important Egyptian institution still able to resist government pressure. In a country where political parties are very weak, the Judges Club emerged last year as the leading force calling for honest elections.

Legal experts say the new law will almost certainly fail to deliver the guarantees which the judges are seeking.

“That no one has yet seen the draft law is in itself a scandal,” said Ahmed Mekki, a senior judge who has been at the forefront of the judges’ movement. “We expect the law to be against the election of members of the Higher Council of the Judiciary [the formal body which handles relations between the judiciary and the state] and we believe it will curtail the club’s freedom of expression.”

Judges fear the club will be brought under the control of the council which, many judges charge, functions as a conduit for government influence over the judiciary.

The club has been pressing the government to adopt alternative legislation that would place the careers and pay of judges in the hands of an elected council.

Egypt has the longest and most developed judicial tradition in the Arab region and such an elected council existed in the past, but it was abolished soon after the 1952 revolution brought Gamal Abdel Nasser to power.

Attempts by the judiciary to assert its independence were slapped down. In 1968, many judges were sacked in what came to be known as the “massacre of the judiciary”.

During the past year, the open defiance by the Judges Club has presented an embarrassing and unprecedented challenge to the government.

Under the Egyptian constitution, the judiciary is required to supervise elections. Thousands of members of the Judges Club voted in May to stay away from the polls.

In high-profile public meetings, many judges said that in previous elections their presence had been exploited to legitimise fraud.

In the event, the judges did supervise a referendum and two sets of elections last year, but they issued damning reports documenting violations.

Many judges, emboldened by the stand of the club, insisted on declaring the real results in the constituencies where they supervised the polling – a fact which helped increase the number of seats won by the opposition Muslim Brotherhood.

Some of the most outspoken judges found themselves subject to disciplinary measures. Six were told they would be stripped of their immunity and interrogated by the state security agency.

After a public outcry, they were told they would be questioned by a judicial interrogator. No one has been questioned but, judges say, the government’s intentions are clear.