In fewer than 24 hours, Parliament and the executive authority secured an important political victory over Egypt’s judiciary in the protracted conflict over the chief judicial appointments law. Months of back and forth dotted by claims of corruption, a land dispute playing out in the courthouse and debate around the bounds of judicial autonomy came to a seeming decisive end when Parliament passed the bill, followed by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s ratification and late night publication in the Official Gazette.
The law grants the president greater powers in appointing the heads of the Supreme Judicial Council, the State Council, the State Lawsuits Authority and the Administrative Prosecution, replacing the long-standing customary principle of seniority in executive appointments. As per the new bill, the president will select one one three candidates nominated for leadership by each institution.
Despite resistance from judges and several members of Parliament, who deem the bill a threat to the independence of the judiciary, the law is on the way to being implemented.
“Judges can’t do anything but execute the law, even if it goes against the Constitution”
The draft law was rejected by all the affected judicial bodies, with the exception of the State Lawsuits Authority, which represents the state in judicial disputes. Despite this, they all started submitting their candidate nominations on Saturday.
“The law violates the Constitution and affects the independence of the judiciary,” says Abdel Aziz Abou Eyana, the head of the Alexandria branch of the Judges Club. “But can we violate it? No, we cannot.”
“Judges can’t do anything but execute the law, even if it goes against the Constitution,” says Mohamed Ahmed Atteya, a former minister of legal affairs and former vice president to the head of the State Council.
Atteya commented on allegations that the law is designed to exclude certain judges from leadership positions, specifically citing the cases of Yehia al-Dakroury and Anas Omara who have run up against the state after passing rulings which break with the government’s official position.
In June of last year, Dakroury, the State Council’s first deputy and head of the Court of Administrative Justice, ruled against a contentious maritime border agreement signed by the government to transfer sovereignty over the Red Sea islands Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia.
Omara, the Court of Cassation’s vice president, issued a ruling annulling all death penalties issued on the sole basis of National Security investigations, affecting a number of cases involving the Muslim Brotherhood.
Omara and Dakroury have been nominated by their judicial institutions for leadership positions.
Shortly after Parliament approved the bill, the executive board of the Judges Club, the largest representation of judges in the country, called on the president to veto the law.
Wael Farahat, the Judges Club’s spokesperson, tells Mada Masr that the bill is tantamount to a “judicial massacre and an attack on the independence of judicial authorities in Egypt.”
The board of the Judges Club initially called for a General Assembly on May 5, to discuss its resignation “in protest against the breach of judicial independence.” However, the Judges Club postponed the general assembly indefinitely on Monday.
While the legislative body approved the bill, it did not pass without dispute.
Detractors from the bill were not limited to those in the judicial ranks, as, while the bill ultimately passed through the House of Representatives to make its way to the president’s desk, there were issues along the way.
The first issue centered on the non-binding advisory report that the State Council’s legislative committee issued earlier in April, which included an assertion that bill would contravene seven constitutional articles
A source at the committee speaking on condition of anonymity says that they made fundamental notes about the bill.
However, the report on the bill distributed to parliamentarians before Wednesday’s voting session didn’t include the State Council’s comments and edits.
Parliamentary Speaker Ali Abdel Aal ignored requests to refer the State Council’s observations to the general session, raising his voice to silence opposition
Alaa Abdel Moneim, a member of Parliament’s Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee, describes the bill’s approval as a constitutional and judicial crisis. “The speaker surprised everyone and asked for the vote, despite the fact that he had referred the State Council memo to the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee for response,” he said, adding that the committee planned to solicit comments from the general session.
MP Mortada Mansour, also a member of the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee, pushed to postpone the discussion of the State Council’s memo, arguing that the administrative court had overstepped its mandate by giving its opinion on the law where it should only have revised the bill’s legal formulation.
Altercations broke out between committee members who were in support of the bill and those who opposed it. Salah al-Din Hasaballah, who supported the bill, insisted that the decision to issue the law falls with Parliament alone. MP Suzy Nashed, however, defended suggestions that the bill be drafted in consultation with judges, a position also advocated by MP Mostafa Bakry with the caveat as a pro-state figure that the law could hurt Parliament and the executive authority.
Parliamentary Speaker Ali Abdel Aal ignored requests to refer the State Council’s observations to the general session, raising his voice to silence opposition which came primarily from members of the 25-30 Alliance. Although generally aligned with the government, members of the parliamentary bloc took positions slightly different to the house majority. After the bill was approved, 25-30 Alliance members withdrew from the session in protest.
Ahmed Sharqawy, the parliamentary bloc’s spokesperson, says that the decision to leave the house floor came in response to unmet demands. “They asked for the floor to clarify the danger of ignoring the State Council’s notes on the unconstitutionality of the bill.”
Issues were also raised regarding both the quorum and the two-thirds-majority vote on the bill.
“It is an illegitimate law that unsettles the independence of the judiciary”
Sharqawy contends that less than 200 members of Parliament stood up to signal their approval, even though a two-thirds majority requires approval from 398 members. He adds that several members of the 25-30 Alliance requested that the speaker recheck the two-thirds majority. However, Abdel Aal did not respond.
MP Abdel Rehim Ali, the editor-in-chief of the pro-state Al-Bawaba newspaper, opposed the vote and urged the speaker to ensure a quorum was present as he claimed it was below the minimum threshold. The speaker denied this claim.
On Sunday, lawyer Essam al-Islambolly filed a complaint with an administrative court, demanding that the ratification of the law be halted.
Islambolly demanded that the issue be referred to the Supreme Constitutional Court to investigate 25 violations of the Constitution, in addition to its infringements upon the independence of judicial authorities.
“It is an illegitimate law that unsettles the independence of the judiciary,” Islambolly tells Mada Masr. “It needs to be stopped before it is implemented.”