Looming showdown between Egypt’s president, judges

Sunday 21/05/2017
Crisis ahead. A file picture shows Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi greeting members of the Supreme Judiciary Council at the main headquarters of the Supreme Court in Cairo. (Reuters)

Cairo- The crisis between Egypt’s judges and President Ab­del Fattah al-Sisi threat­ened to intensify after the State Council, one of the three pillars of Egypt’s judicial system, nominated its most senior judge to replace the outgoing head.
For decades, Egypt’s three main judicial bodies — the State Council, the Supreme Constitutional Court and the Court of Cassation — were headed by their most senior judg­es, according to the law. However, amendments introduced by par­liament and approved by Sisi give the president the right to select the heads of judicial bodies.
The amendments require gener­al assembly members of the three judicial bodies to nominate three of their colleagues to succeed out­going heads. The president then has the right to select one of the three to head each body, regardless of seniority.
“This does away with the inde­pendence of the judiciary,” said Samir al-Bahi, a senior judge on the State Council. “The amendments were hurriedly [put] through par­liament without consulting the judges.”
The constitution requires par­liament to consult judicial bodies before passing laws that regulate their work. The amendments are another example of Sisi seeking to control the judiciary and stifle its independence, critics said.
A recent decision to acquit dual Egyptian-American national Aya Hijazi, an NGO worker who had been jailed on charges of human trafficking, just days after Sisi met with US President Donald Trump in Washington was viewed by many observers with suspicion.
Trump denied that Hijazi was released as part of any deal. “No. No deal. He [Sisi] was here… [and] I said: ‘I really would appreciate it if you would look into this and let her out,’” Trump told the Associ­ated Press.

Egypt’s judiciary has strongly opposed presidential decrees, in­cluding revoking an agreement signed by Sisi with Saudi Arabia in April 2016 to transfer the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi control. The failure of the agreement strained ties between Sisi and Riyadh.
Egypt’s State Council, a judicial body that oversees legal disputes between citizens and the state, is­sued the verdict against the Red Sea islands deal on April 2. The presiding judge was Yehia al-Dak­roury.

On May 13, and in contraven­tion of the new amendments, 500 members of the State Council’s general assembly nominated Dak­roury, who was the most senior judge, to be the new head of the State Council.
Apart from being a violation of the new amendments of the judi­cial authority law, the move put Sisi in a major bind. If he approves Dakroury’s nomination, it would be seen as a public come down. If he selects another judge to preside over the State Council, he risks ju­dicial revolt.
“The amendments are a new vic­tory for the executive against the judiciary,” said Ahmed Suleiman, a former justice minister.
Egyptian judges said they would not allow this challenge to their in­dependence and promised to work against the president’s interfer­ence in their affairs.
“If the president appoints any­body else, we will appeal his deci­sion,” Bahi said. “We have a wide range of options to choose from in case our will is taken lightly.”
The role of Egypt’s approximate­ly 17,000 judges cannot be under­estimated as Sisi looks to rebuild the country’s political system and institutions after the turmoil fol­lowing the 2011 revolution.
Relations between the judiciary and Egyptian regimes have always been tense. They opposed elec­tion fraud under Hosni Mubarak for years. When Islamist President Muhammad Morsi took over in mid-2012, the judges challenged his attempts to control them.
Tarek Fahmi, head of the Po­litical and Strategic Unit at Egypt’s National Centre for Middle East Studies, expressed hopes that the showdown between the judges and the president would not esca­late.
“The president was in no need to control the judiciary,” Fahmi said. “The president will cause a new cycle of unending enmity between him and the judges to unfold if he rejects Dakroury’s nomination.”
Some said the judicial crisis could be a major turning point in Egypt and that a victory for the state would mean a less independ­ent judiciary that could fail to stand up against presidential overreach.
Those who supported the amendments say the judges are kicking up a fuss about a small change and that the independence of the judiciary is not seriously at risk.
“The amendments are far from allowing the executive branch to control the judiciary,” said Abla al- Hawari, a member of the pro-Sisi parliamentary majority that cham­pioned the amendments. “They only organise the selection of judi­cial body heads.”