Rule of Law Itself Set To Go on Trial In Court in Cairo

Nothing less than the rule of law itself will be on trial here tomorrow as two judges who refused to certify flawed elections last fall will face losing their judgeships on charges they have yet to hear fully.

The disciplinary hearing for Hisham Bastawisi and Mahmoud Mekki is being met with unprecedented resistance from at least a third of Egypt’s 6,000 judges. In recent days, the fate of the two judges who demanded a formal inquiry into November’s parliamentary elections has attracted solidarity from Egypt’s opposition and led to escalating street clashes between protesters and the riot police.

The revolt of the judges marks the first time in the modern republic’s history that a key pillar of the government has practiced open dissent against the regime.That dissent began symbolically in March when hundreds of judges stood silently in protest in front of the building that houses the judges’ syndicate. Last Thursday, 700 of them led a march from the syndicate to the cassation court. The jurists take turns sleeping in the syndicate headquarters now, in order to occupy the building 24 hours a day. In an interview Monday, the vice president of the judges’ syndicate, Mohammed Nagy Derbala, said the dissenting judges are considering not hearing cases if the court tomorrow defrocks Messrs. Bastawisi and Mekki.

This stand off between the regime and its judiciary – the oldest in the Arab world – poses a challenge to President Bush’s policy of encouraging autocratic allies to reform. The American ambassador here, Frank Ricciardone, has been silent on the fate of the two judges. And despite the violent crackdown from riot police at last Thursday’s march, Vice President Cheney met with President Mubarak’s son, Gamal, in private meetings the next day, a sop to a regime that is grooming Gamal Mubarak to assume his father’s post.

The stakes for the president’s democracy agenda are heightened because the roots of the conflict here began when Mr. Mubarak allowed competitive campaigning in last November’s elections at the behest of Mr. Bush. Despite these promises, the regime sent armed men to many polling stations to bar voters from selecting the candidates of their choosing and turned away others on technicalities.

In an interview Monday, Mr. Bastawisi said his dissidence began simply by forming a committee of judges at the syndicate to hear complaints of fraud in the November parliamentary elections after the Ministry of Justice appointed only judges from the ruling National Democratic Party to oversee the vote.

“There were extremely glaring defects,” he said. “There were complaints that some of the supervising judges actually changed results. We then demanded an inquiry on behalf of the judiciary’s own integrity. Whether they are proven innocent or they are proven guilty, then they would be fired from the judiciary for fraud”

But that demand was met with intimidation. Instead of an investigation into a flawed election and the judges who rubber-stamped it, the Ministry of Justice launched an investigation into the judges calling for the inquiry.”It is clear that the purpose of all that was to get the committee to shut up and prevent it from writing a report on the parliamentary elections,” he said. “They were afraid we would reveal that the parliamentary elections as well were fraudulent, as we already knew that the voter lists were manipulated and changed several times. Voters were hindered from voting, except those that would vote for the NDP. They manipulated everything.”

Mr. Bastawisi said he is now under “constant surveillance.” His wife has received anonymous phone calls alleging his infidelity. He said he knows of one woman who told an Egyptian sociologist, Saadeddin Ibrahim, that she was asked to invent a story about an affair they never had for the columns of some state-funded newspapers.

One might think Mr. Bastawisi and the judges would find allies in the Bush administration, which has championed the cause of Arab liberalism. After all, the justices were protesting a parliamentary election that was encouraged and praised by the president himself. But on Monday, a spokesman for the American Embassy referred a call for comment on the standoff to Washington. In Washington, a spokesman for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs was critical of the regime’s treatment of protesters on Thursday, but said nothing of whether Messrs. Bastawisi and Mekki should even face a trial widely seen as retaliation for their efforts to investigate last November’s elections. The two judges have not even formally seen the evidence or charges against them, and the hand-picked jurist overseeing their trial demanded that the state choose the lawyers for the defense.

Mr. Bastawisi said he has no ally in the Bush administration. “All the people have lost trust in the intentions of the American administration,” he said. “[While] they give long speeches on reform in the region, they are backing the very regimes that are standing in the way of these reforms. Mainly we are depending on the Egyptian people.” He said that if he loses tomorrow, which he thinks is a near certainty, he will appeal his decision not in Washington, but in Brussels and other European capitals.

Mr. Bastawisi’s friend and fellow judge Mr. Derbala yesterday laughed when asked about American support for their strike. The director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Study, Bahayeldin Hassan, said American support for democracy in Egypt amounted to “sweet words from time to time.” He said, “We are hearing these statements from time to time. I have not felt the support was serious. I think the common security interest of the United States is a top priority.”

Not all opposition figures agree, however. The vice president of the political party led by a jailed presidential candidate, Ayman Nour, yesterday said he did not doubt the Bush administration’s long-term commitment to the advancement of democracy in the region. “There is public perception of disappointment with Washington,” Hisham Qassem said. “For someone like myself, I know the Bush administration is not backing off. I have met with people from Secretary Rice to John Hannah. This is not something that can be reversed. American foreign policy is based on national security. And they know they need to decongest the region now.” Mr. Qassem added that the pressure from Washington in withholding a free trade agreement and other bilateral perks from Egypt was a more serious policy than a few years ago, when much of the pressure on Mr.Mubarak was limited to public threats – such as withholding aid – the White House had no intention of acting on.

Meanwhile, as a conflict between the judges and the state looms in Egypt, those taking on the regime say the stakes could not be higher. On Monday Mr. Derbala said he believed that Mr. Mubarak was becoming worse for the judiciary than the notoriously repressive Gamal Abdel Nasser, who led the military coup in 1952 that founded the modern Egyptian police state. “Nasser only used to fire judges. On Thursday one of our judges was beaten at the protests,” he said.

Mr. Bastawisi, on the other hand, said that if he loses and the judiciary cannot keep its independence, grave days are ahead for his country. “I cannot say what is going to happen,” he said. “If the people win, then it’s going to be a real democracy. If the state wins, then it’s going to be worse than Egypt has ever seen.”

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