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

Published today in the Scotsman –

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?

Egypt at the brink of a new dawn

Published today in the Caledonian Mercury –


After months of uncertainty, Egypt stands on the brink of a new dawn: but judging by recent developments, quite what the future will hold for the turbulent nation remains far from clear.

Firstly, there was President Hosni Mubarak’s dramatic resignation in February last year, bringing to an end his thirty years as the country’s leader (which followed the assassination of President Sadat in 1981).  There then followed in August his conviction by an ordinary Egyptian criminal court for failing to prevent the killing of protesters during the popular uprising which brought down his regime.  He was immediately sentenced to life imprisonment, and continues to serve that sentence in an Egyptian prison: however as this goes to press the 84 year old has been transferred to a military hospital in a critical condition.

After his resignation, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (‘SCAF’) became the de facto government; and in a statement issued at that time declared that it would both facilitate a transition to democracy and thereafter respect the will of the people as spoken through free and open elections.  That is something that has never happened since the founding of the Arab Republic of Egypt in 1953.

In recent months Egypt has quickly had to get to grips with elections for both the presidency and also the parliament – which was dissolved at the same time as President Mubarak’s resignation.  There have been many arguments about the right of those associated with Mubarak’s regime to stand in the elections and the country has become more openly divided on religious lines, with violent clashes involving Muslim and Coptic Christian communities.

Between November 2011 and January 2012 elections were held for 498 seats in the parliament’s lower house, the People’s Assembly (an additional 10 seats were filled by SCAF appointed candidates).  The result gave the Democratic Alliance, which is dominated by the Freedom & Justice Party (founded by the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt) 235 seats.  The second largest party, the Islamist Bloc, gained 121 seats, with a spectrum of liberal parties thereafter gaining less than 100.

Elections to the upper house, the Shura Council, took place in January and February 2012 and the Democratic Alliance and Islamist Bloc took the lion’s share with 150 of the 180 seats, with liberals again making up the remainder.

With the parliamentary elections complete, the focus then turned to the presidential campaign and ultimately last week’s run off between President Mubarak’s ex-Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik (who has a military background similar to ex-Presidents Mubarak, Sadat and even Nasser before him) and Mohamed Morsi, chairman of the Freedom & Justice Party.  Again, as this goes to press, the result of the election is too close to call, with both candidates claiming victory [Mohamed Morsi has, amid dramatic scenes, now been proclaimed President].  Whoever wins, SCAF has vowed to hand control to the newly elected president on 30 June, but whether this will happen is far from clear; and veteran Middle East analyst Charles Holmes has written that it doesn’t really matter who the next president of Egypt is: that both are ghosts of the past, embedded in a clash between ‘military and mosque’.

The most significant development of all, however, was Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court decision of 14 June that the elections to the People’s Assembly were unlawful, a step which led SCAF to dissolve Parliament.  This has led to an outcry, mainly by the Muslim Brotherhood, which has the greatest to lose from fresh elections, and accusations that SCAF is engineering a coup d’Etat.  On the other hand, SCAF claims simply to be upholding its duty to govern in accordance with the rule of law.

In short, Egypt’s future remains as unpredictable as at any time since the first shoots of the Arab Spring; and the real issue, its foundering economy, remains adrift in the political storm.

Stephen O’Rourke, June 2012

Troubled times in Mexico

200 miles east of Mexico City on the Gulf coast lies Veracruz, the country’s main port.  Each year, millions of tons of cargo pass through its harbours, contributing to an economy which is ranked fourteenth in the world just behind Australia.  The traffic through the port is vast: but equally vast, it seems, is drug trafficking.

According to the CIA’s world fact book (easily found at, Mexico has the world’s second largest cultivation of the opium poppy, generating a potential annual yield of 50 tons of pure heroin.  The Mexican government estimates the value of this trade at anywhere up to 50 billion dollars per year; and the country’s internal cartels play out a seemingly endless and bitter struggle for their share.

On 1 July 2012 Mexicans will go to the ballot box, electing a new president to replace the outgoing President Felipe Calderon: but sadly, however, the election debates have so far been characterised by personal accusations of corruption among the candidates, rather than any clear vision for the country.  And a vision is badly needed, as amply demonstrated by the tortured bodies of three young journalists, pulled ten days ago (on International Press Freedom Day) from a canal in Veracruz.  Their crime: daring to report on the city’s drugs trade.  There have now been nine journalists killed in the Veracruz area over the past 18 months, prompting UNESCO’s director general Irena Bokova to call for the Mexican authorities to do everything in their power to bring those responsible to justice.

The figures in recent years for attacks on journalists all across Mexico, however, are even more disturbing.  It is estimated that 50 have been killed or have disappeared in the last 5 years alone, the highest figure anywhere in the world: but even more concerning, it is alleged that in many instances those responsible are the very agents who should be combating the drug trade, rather than turning a blind eye, or worse.

But there is some good news.  In March, President Calderon’s government, in a vote unanimously backed by the Mexican Senate, amended the constitution to make attacks against journalists a federal crime; and in the run up to the presidential election, there is much focus on the extent to which the candidates will pledge to track down Mexico’s most wanted drug baron Joaquin ‘Chapo’ Guzman, the man who escaped from a Mexican federal prison in a laundry cart eleven years ago, and who has remained in hiding ever since.  And broadly speaking, while Mexico is today alive with drug related problems, these problems have only been brought to the surface by President Calderon’s commitment five years ago to a long term war on narcotics: a war he seems unfortunately far from winning as his presidency draws to a close.

Overall, the enormous issue of trafficking from Central and indeed Latin America seems to generate more questions than answers in today’s world, and many would point to radical solutions: but for the time being Mexico’s own attempts to face the issue seem paralysed.  In the words of Viridiana Rios, a Mexican PhD student at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government: “Mexico is silent and blind and our leaders do not seem to care.  Our justice system is broken, it has no teeth.”

More than ever, Mexico needs a president with the vision and determination to help solve this unfolding human tragedy.

Syria in crisis

It was hard not to be deeply moved by the recent hospital bedside evidence of Sunday Times photographer Paul Conroy and the massacres he has witnessed in the Syrian city of Homs.  Mr Conroy, a veteran correspondent, describes the situation in Syria as a crime on a scale he has never seen before, involving the indiscriminate slaughter of women, children and old men by government forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.  He compares Syria with the Chechen capital Grozny, with Rwanda, with France during the First World War; and as he recovers from his blast injuries, breathing with the aid of an oxygen feed, he says ‘The time for talking is long gone, these people are dying as we speak’, but that ‘once again the world sits by and watches.  There should be an answer in this age.’

Weekend reports in the Canadian media, quoting figures provided by the Local Co-ordination Committees of Syria (an opposition activist network), estimate the death toll at close to 10,000 civilians, while the official United Nations figures are already in excess of 8,000.

But what if anything can the law, international or otherwise, do about this unfolding genocide?  And if the answer to this question is nothing, it is at least worth reflecting upon why that is so.

In Geneva on 29 February, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution calling on the Syrian authorities to put an end to human rights violations and allow humanitarian aid to be delivered into the country by the UN and other organisations.  37 countries backed the resolution while China, Cuba and Russia voted against it.  Ecuador, India and the Philippines abstained.   The Council also stressed the need to end impunity and hold accountable those responsible for human rights abuses.

The UN Council resolution followed a mid-February Cairo meeting of the 22 member Arab League, which called for international efforts to end the conflict.  At that meeting the League disbanded its own monitoring mission in the country, stating that it would ask the UN Security Council to form a joint UN-Arab peacekeeping force to oversee the implementation of a ceasefire.  In an impassioned address to the League, the Saudi foreign minister stated: “How long will we stay as onlookers to what is happening to the brotherly Syrian people, and how much longer will we grant the Syrian regime one period after another so it can commit more massacres against its people?”

Events in Syria follow the Arab Spring which has toppled a number of regimes; and for over a year now the struggle between the government forces of President al-Assad (a Ba’athist, in common with Saddam Hussein) and the popular uprising against his regime has played out in the world’s media.  In November the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights concluded that crimes against humanity may have been ongoing in the country since last March.  The alleged crimes included specific instances of torture and killing within a military hospital in Homs.

In May, President Obama made an Executive Order freezing all assets of President Assad under US jurisdiction.  Canada quickly followed suit, and days later the Council of the European Union also resolved to impose travel bans and an assets freeze on President Assad and nine other Syrian officials.  Both Turkey and the Arab League imposed sanctions in November; and in recent days the EU Council of Ministers has met again over the issue – however it has rejected any possibility of military intervention out of hand.  “We must be patient,” said Luxembourg’s highly regarded Minister for Foreign Affairs Jean Asselborn, “We will unfortunately have to accept to see enormously more victims, but military intervention would be worse.  It wouldn’t be thousands, but tens of thousands of dead.”

The highest level of international response to the situation in Syria is of course through the UN Security Council, whose five permanent members (The US, France, Russia, China and the UK) enjoy a right of veto against any concerted UN action.  But last October a Council resolution – which in effect proposed sanctions against Syria – was vetoed by Russia and China; and there is no prospect that either of those countries will change their position.  While sanctions have, therefore, been thwarted at the UN level, they appear to be already well implemented by the US, the EU and other countries and international bodies.  One thing is clear, however: lawful military intervention would require a resolution of the UN Security Council to that effect (such as was obtained in the case of Libya, with Russia and China abstaining).  As things stand, however, and bearing in mind the recent views of EU Ministers, such a resolution is highly unlikely.

Meanwhile, President’s Assad’s forces have begun shelling the southern city of Deraa; Turkey reports thousands of Syrian refugees pouring across its border; the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Omar, Qatar and Kuwait have all joined in closing their Syrian embassies and denouncing the Syrian government; and the United Nations has this weekend announced a humanitarian mission into the country, which hopes to work in tandem with the Syrian government in obtaining ‘unhindered access to identify urgent needs and provide emergency care and basic supplies.’  “There is no time to waste,” says UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos.

Through it all President Assad maintains that his troops are fighting armed gangs which are seeking to destabilise Syria; and he has been emboldened in that course of action by the continued support of Russia.  Much therefore rests on the position and enormous influence of the newly elected President Putin.