Egypt’s supreme court must become jewel of the Nile’s institutions

Published today in the Scotsman – www.scotsman.com

In a country not known for its robust institutions, Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court served as a powerful symbol of independence for years in the 1970s and 1980s.

Egypt’s leaders – president Mubarak, and Sadat before him – initially allowed the court its place for political purposes. But the court seized that role and in some areas duly held the government to account. Sadly, the great court is today not the power it once was, following a plan to weaken it led by Mubarak from the 1990s onwards.

Perhaps the clearest measure of this was when the present chief justice, Farouk Sultan, was appointed in 2009, causing many eyebrows to be raised.

It was not just that Judge Sultan was appointed from a first-instance court below both the Constitutional Court and the appellate Court of Cassation, it was also the fact that his experience was in military and security courts, and the curiously titled “courts of ethics”.

All in all, the feeling grew that the Constitutional Court’s glory days were behind it, to the point where today it is openly known that a number of its judges are advisers to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the junta currently running the country since Mubarak was deposed and, in short order, arrested, tried and convicted.

The announcement yesterday of the outcome of the presidential election and the imminent investiture of Mohamed Morsi as head of state could put the Constitutional Court into the front line of civic life again.

Chief Justice Sultan is also head of the Presidential Elections Committee, at the centre of the delay in declaring the results. And with a mandate from barely a quarter of the electorate, President Morsi is likely to face many legal challenges as he tries to change the face of Egypt.

Everything has been happening in Egypt at the same time: the first free elections in the country’s history; a close-run presidential campaign albeit with a modest turnout; attempts to draft a new constitution; the declaration last week by the Supreme Constitutional Court that last November’s parliamentary elections are null and void and will have to be re-held at some point; the subsequent dissolution of parliament by SCAF; the slow demise of ex-president Mubarak; and now the presidential election results.

Perhaps this is not the easiest time to be a professor of  constitutional law at Cairo  University… probably just as well to dump the last few years’ lecture materials in the recycling bin.

In the midst of all the chaos, however, it is easy to forget how far Egypt has come in less than 18 months and that the country has almost arrived at the point where SCAF needs to honour its promise to hand over control of the government to the newly elected president – an event scheduled for this weekend.

In the parliamentary elections earlier this year, Egyptians voted overwhelmingly in favour of pro-Islamic candidates. Now they have voted for the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Morsi, over  Mubarak’s ex-prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq.

It should come as no surprise that SCAF is perceived as supporting the more secularly inclined population as opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood – the military and the mosque have been two competing factions in Egypt for decades – with the third “m”, the mob, somewhere in the middle. Of course, the secular population is not a single bloc. It includes those who hanker after the Mubarak certainties as well as the enthusiasts for liberal reform.

When it comes to it, will SCAF freely hand over the country to its rival, Morsi? Somehow that’s difficult to imagine happening.

Shafiq, on the other hand, is cut very much from SCAF cloth, a military man, like Mubarak before him, with a liberal eye to the west.

So far, SCAF appears to be honouring its promise with regard to the transition to democracy and respecting the choice of  the electorate. But what, if anything, can hold SCAF to account, quell the election bickering, ease the passage to democracy and guard the country’s liberal and secular minorities?

What Egypt needs now, more than ever, is its Supreme Constitutional Court restored to operational independence and polished until it sparkles like a diamond amid the noise and confusion of so much change, so many competing voices and with an active legal profession which is confident that arguing a challenging brief will not risk personal safety.

Chief Justice Sultan, aged 70, will stand down on 1 July, probably to his great relief, and is likely to be replaced by Judge Maher El-Beheiry.

However, unless his court can once more stand apart from the junta, then who will guard the guardians of Egypt’s delicate Arab Spring?

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