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EGYPT: Parliament Comes Down on Judiciary

Adam Morrow

CAIRO, Jul 3 2006 (IPS) - Parliament has passed a law that critics say will keep the judiciary under control of the executive.

The law was passed this week in the face of strong protests. A number of amendments to the legislation proposed by pro-reform judges were disregarded.

“The new law offers a few small gains compared to the previous law,” Mohamed Said, deputy director of the state-run Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies told IPS. “But it’s basically an attempt to package the same old stuff in a new bottle.”

The Judicial Authority Law was widely endorsed by members of the ruling National Democratic Party despite spirited resistance from opposition MPs.

“The government stuck with the original version of the draft Judicial Authority Law, with the People’s Assembly agreeing to several of the articles introduced by the government,” the independent daily Al-Masry Al-Youm reported. The session saw “the retraction of several proposed amendments” recommended by members of the pro-reform Cairo Judges Club, the paper noted.

Justice Minister Mahmoud Abu Leil told the assembly shortly after the vote that the passage of the law was “a major accomplishment for judicial independence.”

The legislation nominally frees the attorney-general from control of the ministry, and guarantees the judiciary’s right to budgetary independence. But the justice ministry will continue to control judges’ promotions and demotions. Members of the Supreme Judiciary Council will continue to be appointed by the government, and not elected.

“The new law has both good and bad points,” Cairo Judges Club secretary-general Hesham Geneina told IPS. “Nevertheless, the justice ministry will retain considerable control over the judiciary.”

Cairo Judge Hisham el-Bastawisi, who has become a symbol of the judiciary’s bid for independence, was more blunt. “It’s a bad law and represents a major step backwards,” he said. “It gives us nothing. They talk about an independent budget, but without providing any details – it’s worse than before. The government doesn’t want any kind of reform or free elections or independent judges. It’s a bad situation.”

Budgetary independence is limited. The minister of finance still has the right to veto the judicial budget, the al-Ahram Centre’s Said agreed.. “As for the attorney-general, he’ll still be appointed directly by the government, and will therefore remain obedient to the justice ministry.”

Executive control over the judiciary became a headline issue during last November’s parliamentary elections, when el-Bastawisi and a colleague openly accused the government – and several fellow judges – of electoral fraud. The allegations, some of which were aired on satellite television stations, prompted furious reaction from Cairo, which charged the two judges with tarnishing the image of the Egyptian judicial system.

A disciplinary tribunal in May largely exonerated the two judges, but their prosecution galvanised opposition movements across the political spectrum.

Last month, as the two judges prepared to face the tribunal, Cairo witnessed a string of major protests, with demands for judicial independence, political reform, and an end to the unpopular emergency law. Protests drew participants from socialist opposition parties, the pro-democracy Kifaya movement and the banned but tolerated Muslim Brotherhood.

The largest of the demonstrations – on May 11, 18 and 25 – were met with surprising aggression on the part of thousands of security personnel deployed across the capital. But despite an announcement by the interior ministry that participation in demonstrations would be considered a criminal offence, sporadic protests continued in solidarity with the reformers.

According to Said, “the bill’s success in parliament essentially means that the judges lost the battle for judicial autonomy.” But el-Bastawisi is optimistic despite the obvious setback. “We will inform the Egyptian people – and the world – that the government is lying; that it has no real intention to reform,” he told IPS. “And we will keep fighting. We will continue to demand independence.”

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