Judges’ Uprising Marks a Knell for Injustice

Democracy is a government of we the rulers, for we the rulers and of course by we the rulers (shush! who are you to ask by whom?). This is what the modern-day Pharaohs seem to affirm with the force of power they wield – true at least in the case of Egypt, which is witnessing judges’ uprising countrywide against the diktat of the Hosni regime.
When two individuals or groups happen to dispute, the grieved party moves the court of law for redress. But when the members of judiciary stand targeted and stripped of their judicial immunity by the executive, whom will they appeal to? The question assumes significance when the regime is hell bent upon disciplining the pro-reform judges, and thus literally silencing the voice of dissent.
The message the regime tends to give is: if you dare to dissent or, in other words, refuse to submit to the authority, be ready to face the music. And this is exactly what is happening in Cairo.

The situation had been simmering and simmering for years particularly since the large-scale fraud in the parliamentary elections held in October and November 2005. And it was brought to a boil on February 15 this year when the Supreme Judicial Council reportedly announced to lift the judicial immunity of four judges – Hisham Bastawisi, Mahmoud Makki, Mahmoud Khodeiri and Ahmed Makki. This was the initial report but later it turned out that the Government proceeded only with the first two judges – Hisham Bastawisi and Mahmoud Makki – perhaps to test the reactions of the judges. These judges are fighting for a new judiciary law and full judicial supervision of elections.
These judges are thereby trying not to satisfy their wishful thinking but to exercise their right enshrined in Article 88 of the Egyptian constitution: “The Law shall determine the conditions which members of the Assembly must fulfil as well as the rules of election and referendum, while the ballot shall be conducted under the supervision of the members of a judiciary organ.”

Since their assertion of the right and striving for greater judicial independence in fact challenges the absolute power in the hands of the rulers, the government exploited the usual manoeuvre to place these judges under sequestration: induce a pro-regime professional to file a phoney complaint, thus providing a pretext for the government to swoop in and neutralise the dissenters. In this case, a pro-regime judge Mohamed Borham filed a complaint claiming that the said judges had wrongly accused him of complicity in rigging elections at the polling station he supervised in Mansoura during parliamentary elections. The Supreme Judicial Council lifted their immunity so that the judges can be questioned by the State Security Prosecution (Niyabat Amn al-Dawla al-Uliya).
The Judges Club set up a committee to investigate charges that some judges had participated in rigging the latest legislative elections. This has heightened the crisis between the government and the Judges Club, leading to referral of Judiciary Counsellors Mahmoud Makki and Hisham al-Bastawisi to a disciplinary court, where Makki was acquitted and Bastawisi was reprimanded.

This is not a question simply of elimination of individual reformist judges but of the integrity of judiciary. Hence their uprising. Having been stripped of their immunity, the judges gave a call for a sit-in at their club in Alexandria on February 17, only two days after the Council’s move. The call attracted as many as 400 judges from all over the country, adorned in their red and green judicial sashes, and arrayed in silent but solemn protest for one hour at the Judges Club in Alexandria.
This was not the first time Bastawisi participated in an electoral protest. In 1985, he and other judges condemned fraud, without effect. On his trial in a disciplinary court last week, the 29-year court veteran considered cooperating with the regime at this point ‘a crime’. Bastawisi, Makki and thousands of other judges have made it clear not to return to court until the government releases those who were arrested, and if all their demands are not met, to move the international court of justice.

The severity of the situation can be gauged with the fact that 90 Egyptian MPs on May 15 tendered their resignation en masse from the lower chamber of parliament, Majlis al-Shaab, in protest against the arrest of more than 300 members of the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan al-Muslimoon) over recent weeks. The deputies, many of whom belong to the Islamic organisation founded in 1928, said the speaker of the lower house, Ahmed Fathi Sourour, had rejected their proposal for a debate on the wave of arrests which has hit the Muslim Brotherhood. Hundreds of supporters mostly from the Muslim Brotherhood, Kefaya and Ghad Party are being arrested, beaten and tortured almost on daily basis in Cairo, Alexandria and other parts of the country.
In recent weeks Egyptian police have taken a much tougher approach to pro-reform protests. Plainclothes security men have beaten, kicked, clubbed and in some cases sexually assaulted people demonstrating peacefully in support of the judges. They hauled off protesters who were chanting, “God grant the judges strength to resist,” and “Down with Hosni Mubarak”.

The judges’ another concern is that the Supreme Judicial Council has adopted an utterly secretive and high-handed posture on the draft law on the judiciary. The draft law meets none of the judges’ demands, instead deliberately codifies the executive’s will to dictate. For instance, the bill reportedly raises judges’ retirement age from 68 to 72 (in September 2003 a presidential decree raised judges’ retirement age from 66 to 68), a blatant violation of judicial majority opinion. At the December 16, 2005 Judges Club general assembly, 3,706 out of 4,732 judges voted against raising the retirement age, which is a palpable move to block the promotion of younger judges and prolong the tenure of their pliant, regime-friendly elders.
Not to say of freedom of judiciary alone, the freedom of press is also being violated. Hamada Abdul Latif, correspondent of the independent weekly Al Karama, was arrested on May 21 while covering peasants being evicted in Dekernis, 150 km north of Cairo. Even foreign journalists are not being spared. Four foreign journalists – French photographer Jean-Claude Aunos of Gamma, French freelancer Olivier Bonnel (who is working for the French daily Ouest-France), Swiss freelancer Grégoire Durus and Belgian freelancer Thomas Gadisseux – reportedly said they were detained and beaten and their equipments seized while covering the events in Dekernis. They were accused of “taking photographs without permission” and “confronting the authorities.” An NGO, Reporters Without Borders noted that some 15 journalists were harassed, beaten or threatened by the security forces during protests on May 12. (This reminds us here in India of the same barbarism suffered by the foreign as well as Indian journalists and cameramen who were there in Ayodhya to cover the demolition of Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992, at the hands of the vandals of what our Rashtrawadis love to call sangh parivar. A senior correspondent of the Hindi daily Hindustan once told this scribe how his newspaper had to spend about Rs. 50,000 on the treatment of its journalist who had returned severely injured from Ayodhya.)
This is enough to show how a typical brand of despotocracy, or better call it ‘Egyptocracy’, is prevailing in the country in the name of democracy.

Yes, ‘Egyptocracy’, for it is not only Hosni Mubarak who has been thwarting every effort to bring in reform through the democratic process since 1981 when he took the office of President but his predecessors Muhammad Naguib, Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat – all unleashed a rein of terror on the leaders and workers of the Islamic Movement. These rulers stand for all but peace and justice, freedom and democracy, Islam and the Islamic Movement. They are in fact against these positive values. Only one page from history can bring into light the real picture of who they are meant to serve: President Anwar Sadat, during his 44-hour visit to Jerusalem, told the Israeli Knesset on November 20, 1977, “I come to you today on solid ground to shape a new life and to establish peace.” That the head of a Muslim State wanted to establish peace with the Zionist Israel, the illegal state planted on the territory of Palestine, passes our comprehension and is in fact a matter of utter shame for the entire Muslim world.

The history of Egypt is replete with arrests, tortures, imprisonments, death sentences, and other acts of brutality on the part of State machinery. The martyrdom of Sheikh Hasan al-Banna and Syed Qutb and inhuman torture meted out to even lady activists like Zainab al-Ghazali will continue to remind generation after generation of the pharaonic legacy.
In Egypt’s judges’ uprising there is a lesson for US-installed/supported regimes in the Muslim world. The rise of Muslim Brotherhood candidates from 15 in the previous Assembly to 88 in the present, the victory of Hamas in Palestine and an Islamic party in Turkey as well as the democratic rise of Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) to be later strangulated by the military junta in Algeria besides the recent paradigm shift in Nepal – all go to suggest that you cannot suppress mass movement for too long, that the morrow is theirs and that you have to go lock, stock and barrel.

This strictly non-violent, civil resistance movement of judges heralds a new era of reform and change, and marks a knell for injustice. As judicial independence is in fact a national demand and right of all the Egyptians, this movement promises a day when the world will see not only judicial reform but a change in political corridors of Egypt as well. Let us hope the day comes sooner than later.

[Sikandar Azam is Assistant Editor of Radiance Viewsweekly, an Islamic weekly published from New Delhi, India. He can be contacted at [email protected]]

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