Are Judges The True Hope For Egyptian Reform?
Thursday, May 11,2006 00:00
By Rami G. Khouri, Daily Star

Will judges be for Egypt what the electrician Lech Walesa was for Poland: leaders of the first independently organized group in society that successfully challenges and then breaks the government’s monopoly over political power? Will Egyptian judges who change Egyptian politics also shake up political power throughout the Arab world, as Poland’s independent trade union, Solidarity, did in 1980, ultimately sending out ripples that brought down the Soviet empire a decade later? Perhaps.

For those who look for signs of change in an Egyptian political order that has not changed significantly in two generations, or very significantly in four millennia, it is worth keeping an eye on the judges in Egypt. Some among them show signs of challenging state power that has been exercised since 1981 by the current regime headed by President Hosni Mubarak. If the judges coalesce into a sustained, independent movement they may have enormous impact, in a way not achieved by others who have tried to modernize and democratize Egyptian politics in recent years.

There are several reasons why the judges may succeed where others have failed. Judges are numerous, over 8,000 in all, and they are still widely respected, despite falling under the control of the executive branch and the security sector. The judges have shown signs of courageous agitation against heavy-handed state controls, notably in the past year, especially in their demands to supervise elections fairly and independently. Ordinary Egyptians look up to the judges as honest people and connect with their demands. And the judges operate on the basis of pivotal principles - the rule of law, independence of the judiciary, fair election monitoring - that can directly eat away at the autocratic power structure, and instead promote a more democratic, pluralistic and contested system.

But here is the real potential importance of Egypt’s judges moving politically to forge a more open, honest political system: Every single significant political tradition in the modern Arab world (good and bad) started in Egypt, and spread from there to other lands. These include anti-colonial resistance, nationalism and statehood, pan-Arab nationalism under President Gamal Abdul Nasser, the Muslim Brotherhood and modern Islamist politics, constitutionalism and political parties, parliamentary life, oppressive thought controls through information ministries, and organized terror against the state, to mention only these.

We forget today - in the midst of Egypt’s cruel recent slide into authoritarianism, mediocrity and marginality - that the country had always been a leader and trend-setter in the Arab world. If Egyptian judges can organize and challenge their government to open up the political system, the impact on the rest of the Arab world would be immense - as was the impact of Poland’s first free trade union in the Gdansk shipyard.

This is the good news. The bad news is that the Mubarak government also understands this, and has started to crush and discredit the judges, just as it has moved against every other challenge it has faced in the past long generation of the president’s perpetual incumbency. Last week, two courageous members of the Judge’s Club - Hisham al-Bastawisy and Mahmoud Mekki - were stripped of their judicial immunity and faced a disciplinary hearing at the Egyptian Supreme Court. Both were punished for alleging that last year’s parliamentary elections were marred by fraud.
The Judge’s Club in recent years has demanded a truly independent role in monitoring elections and greater overall judicial independence. In reports it released last year, the club declared that fraud had marred a referendum on Egypt’s new election law and the subsequent presidential election. They plan soon to issue another report on weaknesses and misconduct during last December’s parliamentary elections. They have also started calling for democracy and free elections.

"Our case is not important, what is important is ... the right of the Egyptian people to have an independent judiciary, democracy and free elections," Bastawisy told The Associated Press after the hearing. The hearing was adjourned until May 11. But political markers are being laid down. At the hearing, 2,000 demonstrators showed up outside the court to support the two judges, many mobilized by the two-year-old Kefaya ("Enough") movement. The government sent an estimated 10,000 policemen to intimidate potential or actual protesters and assert state authority. Such overkill has been typical of the Mubarak style in recent years.

Those who have tried to break through airtight state political controls - the Muslim Brotherhood, Kefaya, old-style opposition groups like the Wafd, new-style opposition groups like Ayman Nour’s Ghad Party, civil society activists like Saad Eddine Ibrahim - have all suffered the wrath of the state and its vast security system, usually ending up in jail for a period of time. Dozens more activists were jailed this week, and the government also just renewed the much-hated emergency laws for another two years.

The judges frighten the regime because they are numerous, organized, respected, credible, politically active, and making reasonable demands. They could generate public enthusiasm for their cause of the rule of law, and forge a powerful link between the activism of political figures and the widespread concerns of largely depoliticized ordinary citizens, which would be difficult for the state to suppress.

If you wonder how homegrown, credible political change can happen in the Arab world, keep your eye on the judges in Egypt.

Rami G. Khouri writes a regular commentary for THE DAILY STAR.

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