Looming showdown between Egypt’s president, judges
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.”