State Security police in massive numbers surrounded all entries to downtown Cairo to prevent large number of Egyptians who came from all over the country to show their solidarity to Judges Hisham Bastawisi and Mahmod Mikki who appear today before the disciplinary court. Police forces savagely attacked civilians and closed down all businesses in several districts in Cairo. Thousands of people were unable to go to their jobs.
Demonstrations and Arrests Are Underway in Ramses Square
A large demonstration by the Muslim Brotherhood has managed to make its way to Ramses Square, one of Cairo busiest spots. Police quickly closed in, several protestors are in custody including prominent journalist Mohamed Abdel Kodos, Mohamed Al Kasas, and Mohsen Hashem. Police continue to chase down protestors despite of the peaceful nature of the demonstrations, which erupted in support of the two reformist judges facing trial today by the government to remove them from the bench after accusing the government of rigging latest parliamentary elections.
Police assault media personnel destroy equipment
In a desperate attempt by the ailing regime to prevent the world from witnessing its oppressive practices and state sponsored terrorism, police officers assaulted several TV and newspapers’ reporters destroying their equipment, among those is Al Jazeera team.
Police arrest 300 Muslim Brotherhood members in Cairo
More than 300 Muslim Brotherhood members were arrested at the headquarters of the High Court House in central Cairo while more than 2000 others were demonstrating in support of the judges.
Several others arrested in Alexandria
In another attempt to thwart the popular awakening in support of the judges, police forces arrested large number of Muslim Brotherhood members in Alexandria on their way to Cairo to participate in the demonstrations.
Judges tried in absentee
Police also prevented members of the Judges’s Club from attending the trial of their two fellow judges (Bastawisi and Mikki) which prompted the two judges under trial not to attend the court session in protest. The trial judge decided to go on with the trail in absence of judges Bastawissi and Mikki
Police truck carrying soldiers crashes, 10 dead more than 30 injured
In a tragic accident, a police truck was heading to suppress demonstrations crashed this morning killing 10 soldiers and injuring more than 30 others, some of them are in critical conditions. Among the dead, a high ranking police officer. The truck fell off the Six of October Bridge in Abbasya suburbs in Cairo.
After an emergency meeting Tuesday night, the Judges Club board resolved to immediately begin a continuous sit-in at the Club until 27 April, when two frontline figures in the judicial independence movement will appear before a disciplinary board that will determine their “competence” (salahiyya) to retain their judicial posts. By the wee hours of Wednesday morning, judges were milling about in the beehive that is the Club, starting the sit-in, while the Club’s committed clerical staff organised themselves in shifts to man the phones, serve tea, and otherwise ensure the smooth running of the institution.
This latest, most flagrant harassment of pro-independence judges is only the most dramatic in a bundle of reprisals this week that demonstrate as never before just what is at stake in this gripping politico-judicial saga. We know that judges have long chafed under the arbitrary and corrosive control of the executive, but developments this week reveal just what that means in very concrete terms.
On Sunday, the Justice Minister summoned the two senior judges to appear before a disciplinary board (magles ta’dib
), a very grave procedure that surpasses a warning (tanbih
) and leads to one of two possible outcomes: censure or dismissal. The specific charge against the two judges is slandering another judge by falsely accusing him of complicity in rigging elections. Be it noted: this is the first time in Egyptian judicial history that judges of this rank have been disciplined. Even the notorious August 1969 “massacre of the judiciary” steered clear of this procedure, instead retiring or transferring 189 judges to non-judicial posts under the rubric of “judicial reorganisation.”
The two justices in question are high-ranking members of the Cassation Court, and as such count among the crème de la crème of the Egyptian judiciary. Alexandrian Mahmoud Mekky and Cairene Hisham al-Bastawisy have also long been active in the judicial independence movement. They are not elected members of the Judges Club board but serve on the 21-member committee entrusted by the Club to produce an assessment report on the autumn 2005 parliamentary elections. Both are highly effective spokesmen for the cause, with a penchant for precision and clarity of expression and an unwavering commitment to judicial collective action for a new law, and full supervision over elections.
Let’s remember that this very dramatic escalation comes at the end of a long train of harassments that began in 2004 with the warnings issued
to Hossam al-Ghiryani and Mahmoud Mekky’s older brother Ahmed, followed by the November 2005 order by the Supreme Judicial Council to refer 10 judges
to interrogation for their outspokenness about election abuses, to the February
2006 orders of the SJC to strip seven judges of their immunity as a prelude to interrogation by the State Security prosecution.
Bastawisy in particular has been tagged in each and every one of these procedures. It’s pointless to speculate on precise reasons why, given the extraordinary amount of misinformation, rumour, and conflicting reports flying about, but one thing is clear: Bastawisy is a very capable, articulate, and bold judge who made a strategic decision in 2005 to take the judges’ case to the public and link it to the cause of clean elections. For years, he has worked avidly for a regional Arab Judges Union, and schooled scores of young judges in the doctrines of judicial independence and separation of powers before his stint as lecturer at the National Centre for Judicial Studies was terminated. In 2005-06, he has been a model of dogged perseverance, unfazed by truly crushing pressures and the criticisms of some in the profession who believe that his conduct deviates from judicial traditions.
In a distinct but related development, the Supreme Judicial Council has granted its permission for the interrogation of Alexandria Judges Club board member Mahmoud Abou Shousha (b&w photo above). The permission was granted after a complaint filed by one Ezzat Agwa against Abou Shousha for the latter’s allegedly slanderous remarks against Agwa uttered at the December 16, 2005 Judges Club general assembly. Ezzat Agwa of course was the long time incumbent president of the Alexandria Judges Club and close pal of certain government ministers until his ouster in the 2004 Club election and defeat in another election a year later, both of which saw the victory of reformist Mahmoud al-Khodeiry. Agwa’s name is included on the “blacklist” of judges alleged to have colluded in rigging elections, a list put out by the Bar Association board. There’s no word on why Agwa waited four months to file his complaint. All that we know is that at 34, Abou Shousha is one of the youngest members of the judicial independence movement, a natural orator with an engaging, calm demeanour and a razor-sharp mind who inspires other young judges to join the cause.
Finally, distinguished senior Cassation Court justice Hossam al-Ghiryani, no stranger to harassment
, has also been fingered. He received a phone call from the technical bureau (al-Maktab al-Fanni
) of the Cassation Court summoning him for an interrogation before the president of the Court regarding supposedly dozens of unspecified and anonymous “complaints” against him. Incredible as it may seem, anonymous grievances are currently enough to subject an Egyptian judge to interrogation and potential disciplinary proceedings.
The pattern governing all of the actions this week is clear: the regime is leaning on certain judges to activate seemingly unobjectionable procedural mechanisms to punish prominent reformist judges, who are portrayed as errant deviants undermining the stature and integrity of the judicial profession. Now, there is a real rift between Egyptian judges, particularly visible in the last four years. This rift widened into a yawning chasm after the parliamentary elections, as reports swiftly circulated telling of certain judges colluding to fix results in the critical districts of Damanhour, Madinat Nasr, Quellin, Doqqi, and Kerdasa, to name but a handful. Bastawisi and Mekky rightly assert that they have never accused any of their colleagues; indeed, the Club committee preparing a report on parliamentary elections is still not finished precisely because it is scrupulously compiling reliable data on the vote count at each and every auxiliary polling station in each of the contested districts. However, this investigative work is itself perturbing, and judges whose initials appeared on the Bar Association’s blacklist have had their reputations sullied and wish to silence their colleagues.
It just so happens that the minority of judges who are ruffled by the bold leadership of the Judges Club have strong ties to legal personnel in the executive branch, so they are an exceptionally well-connected minority. Both groups have been colluding to undermine, fracture, demoralise, frighten, and otherwise confuse reformist judges by a variety of mechanisms. The problem is that none of these seem to be denting the resolve or support of the pro-independence coalition. For example, take the manoeuvre to piece together a pro-regime judicial counter-coalition in the form of a presidium of “presidents of appeals courts.” As Zakariyya bey Abdel Aziz said, “I don’t know what that is.”
Indeed, there is no such thing in Egyptian judicial structures, it’s an invented entity designed to mobilise judges against the Club’s leadership as a prelude to eventually unseating them. On 29 March, this entity convened a meeting of about 130 judges; the sole item on the agenda was to “discuss the appearance of several judicial colleagues on satellite television channels.” On 2 April, they issued a statement that rebuked “some judges who wish to impose themselves with loud voices and inappropriate expressions…the judiciary is the judiciary, if you don’t like it, then resign and work in politics as you wish, so that judges don’t become a vehicle for political ends.”
The statement was also keen to lambaste the proposed meeting between the Judges Club board and the American-based organisation Human Rights Watch. As we know, there was an insane panic in the corridors of power about this meeting, leading the government to unleash a pathetic, hopelessly amateurish smear campaign against both the Club and the rights organisation, even as the hapless Ahmed Nazif met with its delegation and received a humiliating dressing-down. Could it be that this mammoth regime armed to the hilt with “New Thought,” “women’s empowerment,” and all those other Western-friendly slogans is mighty scared of some judges? Truly, I feel for Mr Nazif. It must be so difficult waking up every morning knowing what quantities of self-abasement the day holds.
But back to our story. I’ll wager that the manoeuvre to construct a critical mass of judges to discredit the independence movement will fail. Here’s an indication: on 7 April, internal elections of the Mansoura Judges Club returned a victory for the reformist camp. Hussein Qandil won the presidency of the Club, receiving 241 votes, while Mahmoud Siddiq Berham garnered 106. Qandil’s slate also captured three out of the four board seats up for election. Berham heads a circuit of the Cairo Appeals Court and is active in the effort to malign the independence movement and its leaders.
There’s no clearer testament to the urgency of a new judiciary law than the summons meted out to Bastawisy and Mekky. Consider: the existing law specifies that the disciplinary board’s verdict be announced in a secret session, and that it cannot be appealed “by any route,” (Article 107). The Judges Club proposed law stipulates that the verdict be announced in an open session, and that it be subject to appeal before a special circuit of the Cassation Court. Judges note the irony that all ordinary litigants are granted the opportunity to appeal court verdicts, while judges are not availed of the same opportunity when it comes to their own affairs.
The existing law says that the disciplinary board is to be composed of seven members: president of the Court of Cassation serving as president, the three most senior presidents of appeals courts, and the three most senior Cassation Court justices (Article 98). First, we know that the actual persons who hold these posts now are simply incapable of ruling fairly on the “competence” of any reformist judge. President of the Cassation Court Fathi Khalifa has been violently and publicly sparring with reformist judges for at least four years, and presidents of appeals courts are now trying to bypass the existing, legitimate judicial representative institution (the Judges Club) by constructing a phony body as a counterweight. The Judges Club draft law proposes a different composition for the disciplinary board that addresses potential conflicts of interest.
But the root cause of the problem remains: Article 111 of the existing judiciary law empowers the Minister of Justice to refer any judge to a disciplinary board. Correcting this glaring violation of separation of powers has not been among judges’ demands, both because this prerogative has not been used before and because there are other, more pressing executive violations of judicial independence that they’ve experienced and seek to fend off. Now, in 2006, the hypothetical has become real. As crises often do, this one is bound to sharpen judges’ demands and add to the list of abuses from which they seek deliverance.
It’s easy to become entangled in the absorbing details of this never-ending story and forget why it all matters. To me, the real gravity of what we’re witnessing today transcends the battle for a truly independent judiciary, as irrefutably crucial as that is. Independence of the judiciary is not enough to realise democracy, nor is it a synonym for democracy. Democracy hinges on the capacity of citizen groups to form freely and govern themselves, unencumbered by the grasping claws of the state. The Judges Club saga is especially riveting because it concerns a very special group of citizens, those who are at once members of and watchdogs over the state.
But the fundaments of judges’ struggle are the same for other citizen associations currently in the throes of their own projects of autonomy. Witness one unfolding right now before our eyes: Egyptian engineers and their truly epic efforts to take back their union from a decade of enforced hibernation and decay (and surely we all know how superior Egyptian engineers are, don’t we?!). And Egyptian professors acting collectively to wrest their campuses from the stultifying grip of security forces and their vile academic collaborators. And Egyptian journalists finally cognisant of the president’s phony “promise” to abolish imprisonment for press offences. And Egyptian physicians who have been emboldened by judges to hold similar stands outside their union. And let’s not forget Egyptian actors, who in a less publicised but critical election last December threw out their own ossified leaders, including the intolerable presidential sycophant Yusuf Sha’ban, and voted in the honourable Ashraf Zaki as union president and fresh, new members to the board.
I can’t think of a truer observation about this whole drama than one penned years ago by a perceptive scholar, yet ever resonant today: “Egypt’s rulers have harboured an enduring suspicion of organised professionals.”
It was a sight to behold. Egyptian judges hailed from all over the country on Friday for a silent stand in their stately club, continuing their struggle for a new law that ensures judicial independence. Swathed in their plush red and green sashes, they stood silently for a little less than an hour as cameras clicked and whirred all around them and a lovely spring sunshine illuminated the proceedings.
Supportive pro-democracy demonstrators momentarily suspended their chants and slogans out of respect for the judges’ wish for a silent stand. For a spell on Friday afternoon, the otherwise hectic Champollion St. was blanketed by an eerie, momentous silence, punctuated only by the gently rustling leaves on the trees bearing witness. Once again, the dignity and persistence of Egypt’s judges fills me with awe.
The large turnout was in part driven by the collective outrage at the questioning of very prominent and popular pro-reform judges such as Assem Abdel Gabar, Nagi Dirbala, and Yahya Galal (top middle three, left to right) by the Supreme Judicial Council. At the emergency general assembly meeting following the silent vigil, the Club honoured them and the other targeted judges. The hugely popular Dirbala in particular received wildly enthusiastic applause, his story made more dramatic by the fact that his son has been barred from appointment to the parquet (niyaba), almost surely in retaliation for the positions of the father.
Before the silent vigil, Kifaya, al-Ghad, Freedom Now, and allied groups marched in support of the judges, led by the two indefatigable and inimitable Kamals (Khalil and Abu Eita). In what I think is a first in Egyptian history, protestors held aloft huge posters of prominent pro-reform judges such as Zakariyya Abdel Aziz, Mahmoud al-Khodeiry, Hisham al-Bastawisi, Ahmad Saber, and Hossam al-Ghiryani. The posters were designed by the energetic young people who organised the thursday evening Tahrir Square sit-in to support judges and journalists. Demonstrators stopped in front of the Judges Club and a curious and inexplicably moving scene unfolded.
Demonstrators chanted the name of Club president Zakariyya Abdel Aziz (top), who stood silently on the Club steps flanked by his colleagues, in quiet acknowledgement of the protestors’ heartfelt salute. A fiery young protestor with a formidable voice addressed Abdel Aziz directly and almost angrily: "Stand firm! The pressures on you are immense, stand firm!"
When the relatively unknown Abdel Aziz was first elected Club president back in 2001, no one could have guessed that five years on, his would become nearly a household name. Certainly no one could have imagined that he and his intrepid colleagues would morph into the most potent symbols of Egyptians’ desire for political change, repositories of hope, inspiration, and not a little pride. An ordinary citizen who came to observe the judges’ stand said, "I’m here because I want change in this state."
It’s a lot to ask of judges working under conditions of considerable duress, but the majority of men on the Egyptian bench show no signs of shirking. As judges ended their vigil and made their way to the general assembly deliberations, our honourable judge Hossam al-Ghiryani flashed the victory sign, to the applause and delight of the demonstrators and passersby who lingered to watch.
March has always been a fertile time in Egyptian annals. As with 2005, this year’s spring promises new and unexpected developments. At the conclusion of their assembly, judges resolved to stand again on May 25, but this time inside the High Court building, as they had planned for this friday before "the authorities" closed off the court complex. "No rights without sacrifice!" bellowed a judge at the general assembly. And so the saga continues.
In Omnia Paratus
Two more judges have been tapped for interrogation, this time (and for the first time) both very popular, elected members of the Cairo Judges Club board. Nagi Dirbala (right) and Ahmad Saber (left) are among the 14 board members elected by a landslide during the December 16 elections. Singling them out is a direct slap in the face to the popular will of the majority of judges. Saber is the gifted orator who begins every general assembly meeting with a speech that animates and stimulates the crowd. Dirbala is the extremely hardworking, methodical man behind the scenes: keeping the records, organising the proceedings, taking care of business. Both are devoted Club members and key pillars of the pro-independence alliance. The regime’s trawl has now taken in eight pro-reform judges, prompting inevitable whispers of an impending “new massacre of the judiciary.” As the March 17 extraordinary general assembly approaches, only one thing is sure: judges are now prepared for anything. Correction: initial reports that Saber was reprimanded proved false. To date, seven (and not eight) pro-reform judges have been apprehended: Hisham al-Bastawisy, Mahmoud al-Khodeiry, Ahmed and Mahmoud Mekky, Yahya Galal, Assem Abdel Gabbar, and Nagi Dirbala.
It was both predictable and unexpected. Last friday’s judges’ protest attracted men of the bench from all over the country, the bulk of them young and outraged. Adorned in their red and green judicial sashes, they cut striking and dignified figures, arrayed in silent protest for one hour on the steps and veranda of the magnificent Bolkly villa that serves as headquarters of Alexandria’s Judges Club. It was predictable that the government’s most recent manoeuvre would fuel anger, radicalising the moderate and moving the hesitant. But the actual turnout was unexpected. Before the targeting of the four judges last week, organisers were hoping to draw at most 50. Instead, 400 attended. Well over half of them hailed not from Cairo or Alexandria, but Mansoura, Zaqaziq, and al-Saïd. They delivered eloquent speeches in solidarity with their wronged elders. Buoyed by the blessings of their mentors and their own experiences, these once anonymous young men are the ones the executive must now contend with, today and for years to come.
Though not among the four stripped of their immunity, judges cleaved to one eminent and much-loved senior judge whose ad-libbed comments on Friday drew unanimous plaudits and even tears. Muhammad Hossam al-Din al-Ghiryani (top) commands respect. The solemn protest was his idea, to send a clear signal that judicial action will not fizzle now that elections are over. Instead, it will revert to the original cause for which judges have always agitated: a new law that will effectively preserve their independence. Ghiryani is quite literally central to this battle. Three years ago, a curious confrontation between him and the Supreme Judicial Council rallied judges to action. In fact, it foreshadowed and fuelled current events, where pre-emptive strikes intended to thwart collective action had precisely the opposite effect. For judges, the integrity of elections has always been an important capillary, but autonomy is the jugular. Let’s dissect, shall we?
Straws in the Wind
The story begins with the 2000 elections, when two candidates appealed election results in the East Cairo Zeitoun district before the Cassation Court. On May 12, 2003, the Court circuit headed by Ghiryani ruled for the plaintiffs, arguing that since six out of 49 auxiliary polling stations were not supervised by judges, the declared results were null and void. The ruling was like hundreds of others, but with a key difference: the incumbent in this particular district was none other than Mubarak’s chief of staff, Zakariyya Azmi. Still, the constitution leaves it up to parliament to decide whether to implement such rulings, so the matter was largely moot. Until president of the Court of Cassation Fathi Khalifa intervened. In August, he issued a written comment criticising the ruling, highly anomalous by judicial customs and entirely frowned upon. It is an ingrained principle that sitting judges on the Cassation Court (high appeals court) are not subject to top-down review of their rulings; Khalifa’s comment raised several red flags.
A month later, in September, during parliament’s recess, a presidential decree raised judges’ retirement age from 66 to 68, flying in the face of a consensus among judges that prolonged tenure has corrosive professional and political repercussions. Professionally, a top-heavy judicial structure thwarts the promotion of creative legal talent and ossifies extant ideas. Politically, it risks creating pockets of government loyalists deferential to an executive branch that controls their terms and conditions of service and thus blunts their professional judgement. The plot thickened a month later, when the Supreme Judicial Council headed by Khalifa intervened in a dispute between the Judges’ Club and a retired judge seeking Club membership. The SJC issued a decree declaring that the Club falls within its purview.
Percolating tensions galvanised judges to action. On October 17, 2003, they convened at the Judges Club to deliberate on what they perceived to be growing provocation and intervention by the SJC. Ironically, Khalifa was also in attendance in the entirely honorary capacity of “President of the General Assembly,” pursuant to the Club’s by-laws. The two main orders of business were the raising of the retirement age and the relationship of the Club to the SJC. Judge Ahmed Mekky launched a tirade against the SJC, calling it “an appointed Council that has become of the rulers.” At this point, Khalifa leapt out of his seat and stormed out, tripping and falling as he left the dais. He has not since re-entered the Judges’ Club.
Unfazed, attendees forcefully argued against any oversight of the Club by any organ, including the SJC. Ghiryani delivered a wonderful address on the absolute autonomy of the Club’s general assembly, subject only to the “glass ballot box.” Addressing judges on the SJC, he said, “You are our elders, and command all due respect, but do not create roles for yourselves not granted to you by law. Would that you would properly carry out those duties that are specified for you by the law.” Eleven days later, on October 28, the SJC issued a decree signed by Khalifa asserting that any response to SJC decrees made “in an inappropriate manner” is a violation of the judiciary law and therefore subjects a judge to disciplinary action. But the intra-judicial dispute didn’t end there.
On January 12, 2004, the SJC singled out Ghiryani and Mekky, demanding that they explain in writing “the reasons” for what they said and did. Both retorted with detailed arguments uncovering the procedural violations of Khalifa’s summons. On January 28, the SJC replied to them in writing, “whereas what you have done is unprecedented in the history of the judiciary, and so as not to have it repeated, and pursuant to Article 94 of the law on the judiciary , we warn you not to regress again in the future.”
It was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, the capstone to a long train of abuses. Khalifa’s high handed warning sealed his reputation as a pro-regime judge heading an institution under near-total executive domination bent on silencing independent, reformist judges. But once again, the executive had miscalculated, wagering that the targeting of two prominent judges would silence the rest. Instead, it spawned quite the opposite. Judges surmised that they had to stand up for the honour of their colleagues and take back the SJC.
On March 12, 2004, they descended on the Judges Club in droves for the extraordinary general assembly that would start it all. Ghiryani and Mekky were literally silenced by the overflowing solidarity of their peers, receiving sustained applause for several minutes (top). Little-known Alexandrian judge Mahmoud al-Khodeiri (seated) delivered an inspiring address that day that would eventually catapult him to national prominence.
In April 2004, in an astounding upset, Khodeiri won the elections for president of the Alexandria Judges Club by a mere 2 votes (count ‘em!), beating out chronic pro-regime incumbent Ezzat ‘Agwa. Exactly one year later, the Alexandria Judges Club convened the general assembly that sparked judicial action for full electoral supervision, and the first time judges floated the idea of an election boycott. At that meeting, judge Tareq al-Tawil donned his sash and led his fellows in an impromptu vow to remain independent and vigilant against vote fraud. Judge Mahmoud Abu Shusha recounted a moving story about his experience in the 2000 poll. And judge Hossam al-Ghiryani said, “We want a truly independent judiciary that can protect freedoms and human rights, and the first of these rights is the right not to have one’s will falsified through rigged elections.” A few days later, the SJC issued one of its limp statements underlining that judges should maintain their “distance from working in politics.”
Grasping at Straws?
If recent history is anything to go by, the government and the SJC’s latest actions are only bound to unify the ranks of reformist judges and buttress their resolve for a new law. Leaks of yet another, impending increase in judges’ retirement age to 72 has fuelled fresh outrage. And each further provocation deepens suspicions of an all-out assault on the judiciary rather than the harassment of a handful of outspoken judges. The Minister of Justice’s latest decision to get ugly and cut off $10.5 million in annual funding to Judges Clubs all over the country can only reinforce this. It’s a mystery to me what sort of strategy the government and its legal retainers think they’re pursuing, since for at least the past three years each and every one of their ill-considered moves has spawned a damning counter-move. Surely they could manage this delicate process with a bit more finesse? Or some plain old common sense? But goodness, it boggles the mind, this uninterrupted train of miscalculations and blunders, does it not? I quiver with anticipation for the upcoming March 17 general assembly, which is likely to be every bit as stimulating as its predecessor two years ago, and then some.
In a dangerous escalation, at 4:30 pm yesterday, the Supreme Judicial Council lifted the immunity of four judges leading the movement for a new judiciary law and full judicial supervision of elections: Judge Hisham al-Bastawisy (above far left), Alexandria Judges Club president Mahmoud al-Khodeiri (below right), and the brothers Mahmoud and Ahmed Mekky (above center and below left).
The reason: a judge filed a complaint claiming that the four 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).
First, this is the same maneuver used by the government to place professional associations under sequestration. The story is always the same: induce a pro-regime professional to file a phony complaint, thus providing a pretext for the government to swoop in and neutralise challengers. It should be obvious that this is the selfsame tactic also used to destroy suddenly unruly opposition parties (al-Shaab in 2000 and al-Ghad in 2005). Divide et impera.
Second, this is much more serious, since it’s a branch of state power that’s now under attack. The government has not interfered this blatantly to diminish independent judges since August 1969. The immediate cause this time is a sit-in judges are planning at their club in Alexandria this Friday. The action is to protest the Supreme Judicial Council’s utterly secretive and high-handed posture on the draft law on the judiciary. The Council’s president, Fathi Khalifa, has been entirely uncollegial and less than forthcoming about a bill that judges have been fine-tuning and refining for years. Khalifa’s behaviour is nothing new.
To make matters worse, news had leaked out that the Council’s draft meets none of the judges’ demands, instead deliberately codifying the executive’s will to power. Case in point: the bill reportedly raises judges’ retirement age from 68 to 72, 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 transparent maneuver to block the promotion of younger judges and prolong the tenure of their pliant, regime-friendly elders
.The judges’ sit-in will proceed as planned, and now will surely draw more attention and perhaps even the participation of hesitant fence-sitters. The government’s recent unstudied action is likely to be perceived not simply as an elimination of individual reformist judges, but as an assault on the integrity of the judiciary. All eyes on Bolkly, Alexandria tomorrow, as we wait and watch this dramatic turn of events.
And so it has come to pass. The ultimate election of the year has brought in dramatic results. On Friday, judges returned the “iron slate” of incumbent Zakariyya Abdel Aziz, so-called because of its tough stance on the imperative of judicial independence (I love it). Out of 4,652 valid votes, Aziz garnered 3,680, while the pro-regime Adel al-Shorbagi came away with a non-negligible 930. Unknown last-minute entrant Ihab Abdel Muttalib secured some 89 votes. I was blessedly wrong to think that the body of judicial electors is having second thoughts about Aziz’s activism. Instead, the results show an intensely mobilised and unwavering judicial general will, ready for a new chapter of hard bargaining with the regime. Physical attacks on judges during the parliamentary elections are still fresh in everyone’s mind. But let’s not brush aside the significant minority of challengers led by Shorbagi. They’re crafty and retain close ties to the powers that be. And they’ll live to fight another day. Still, I can’t resist offering my condolences to the regime’s dejected fixers. Your job just got much harder, gentlemen. Pity.
Even more remarkable than judges’ unambiguous mandate to Aziz et al is how closely watched and then heartily celebrated these elections have been. “Mabrouk!” is the cry on everyone’s lips (many thanks for all the e-mails, I’m ecstatic too). It’s as if a significant sector of the public tethered its hopes for freedom and justice to this odd electoral exercise among this most unexpected group of electors. This no doubt is one of the most intriguing and perhaps enduring outcomes of the Judges’ Club vote. As is obvious, the pro-independence faction won more than the confidence of its peers. It has also secured the lasting interest and admiration of members of the general public, for whom the once obscure names Abdel Aziz, Hisham Geneina, Ahmad Saber, and Mahmoud Mekky now evoke honour, courage, and intrepid perseverance.
Judges in this country have long been held in high esteem, but always at a certain remove. Charisma was anathema, unseemly, and downright frowned upon. Now, judges are at the centre of public politics, and it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to claim that a handful have attained the stature of beloved public personalities, purveyors of a certain mystique. That continues to trouble many, and the concerns are legitimate. What does it mean that judges take on the public leadership roles usually assumed by politicians and charlatans? Why did none of the ‘clean’ contenders for parliament capture the public’s imagination in the same way that judges have? How will the regime respond to this latest of a string of setbacks thrown its way? How will Abdel Aziz and partisans maintain the momentum for a new judiciary law while fending off infiltration, demoralisation, or implosion from within? Judges thrive on wielding specialised legal knowledge, fairness, and guardianship of what’s left of the public interest. How the rough and tumble of politics will affect their prized social capital, painstakingly built over decades of dogged professional service and collective action, will be one key development to watch.
But let me not complicate the festivities with too many nagging questions. It’s time to celebrate. I’ll even drink sharbat!
- Baheyya is an Egyptian female name that has come to stand in for Egypt itself. The symbolism of course is the handiwork of the gifted duo of Shaykh Imam Eissa and Ahmad Fu’ad Nigm in their haunting song, "Masr yamma, ya Baheyya." I make no foolish claims to represent Egypt or all Egyptians, I just like the name.
Egypt police beat up pro-reform protestors
Middle East Online - UK
Egypt takes harder line on street protests
Financial Times - London,England,UK
Egypt’s dissenters rally round judges in the dock
Financial Times - London,England,UK
Egypt journalists held at judges’ trial
Aljazeera.net - Qatar
Egyptian security beat protesters in Cairo
Reuters South Africa - Johannesburg,South Africa
Egyptian security beat protesters in Cairo
Swissinfo - Switzerland
A judicial Intifada?
Egypt’s embattled bench
Christian Science Monitor - Boston,MA,USA
Egyptian judges may strike if colleagues lose jobs
Khaleej Times - Dubai,United Arab Emirates
Egyptians Ask: Who Will Rule After Mubarak?
Voice of America - USA
egypt: State of emergency renewed for two years
Monday Morning - Beirut,Lebanon
Egypt’s Judges Offer a Ray of Hope
Middle East Online - UK
Melting ice with Westerners
Chicago Tribune - United States
Egypt puts pressure on judges to toe the line
San Francisco Chronicle - CA, USA
Egypt puts pressure on judges to toe the lineSan Francisco Chronicle - CA, USA