Egypt's justice, in jeopardy


People are back in the squares and this time it is the judicial system that is their concern. Debate regarding how to achieve justice and accountability is intensifying, and oscillating between traditionalist and progressive arguments.

Soha Farouk
16 June 2012

Since the announcement of Hosni Mubarak's trial verdict, and in particular the acquittal of his sons, the business tycoon Hussein Salem as well as the senior Ministry of Interior officials, Egypt has been thrown into a maelstrom of public anger and strife between, and within, the three main political players; the judiciary and the SCAF on the one hand, the parliament's Islamist majority and the revolutionary forces.

Thousands of protesters have massed spontaneously in every square in the country accusing the judges of bias, calling for the application of revolutionary justice against Mubarak's family, his corrupt policemen and regime icons; the dismissal of the public prosecutor and, two days later, the implementation of Egypt’s political isolation law which aims at prohibiting officials of the former regime from occupying political posts. In one stroke, this would exclude Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak's former prime minister, from the imminent presidential run-offs. Harsh attacks upon the judiciary, both from the general public and the MPs, have placed calls for banning public criticism of the judiciary slap up against the necessity of guaranteeing freedom of speech and debate in a society in transition.

During the Mubarak era, preserving a judiciary independent of executive power was always tricky. The former authoritarian regime retained its own tools to interfere indirectly in the judiciary, such as rewarding those who were loyal to the system by appointing them to senior justice posts, or using the military and state security courts against its opponents. Meanwhile, judges' silence regarding the executive power's abuses and human rights violations became part of their survival. Moreover, they had little sympathy for any kind of public criticism of their rulings. After the revolution, many intertwined issues - in particular, the fate of various executive and legislative powers - were placed into the hands of the judiciary, namely, the constitutionality of the parliament; the legality of the political isolation law, as well as the fate of all the corrupted officials of the toppled regime.

Hence, commenting broadly on the courts’ decisions has become a central preoccupation. For defenders of the judiciary's impunity, commenting on judges' behaviour is perceived as an interference in judicial affairs which could influence the judges' decisions, erode public confidence in their impartiality and threaten the integrity and proper administration of the whole justice system. However, advocates of freedom of expression argue that free speech is a vital constitutional right of every citizen. In a society attempting to adopt a participatory system of democratic governance, the promotion of public debate is essential in fostering the accountability of  judges. Well-founded criticism, based on a good understanding of the legal system and the role of judges, and excluding any personal attacks, would enhance public trust in the judiciary system and does not necessarily contradict its autonomy.

In short, in the aftermath of authoritarianism, debate regarding how to achieve justice and accountability is intensifying, and oscillating between traditionalist and progressive arguments. While judges fight back to regain their autonomy,  empowered citizens insist on judicial accountability and a stable future based on rule of law. Public dissatisfaction with the judicial system, manifested in on-going million-man marches and, recently, a sit-in and hunger strike staged by a few activists at the parliament headquarters, renders some kind of reform inevitable. However, revolutionizing the judicial sector , with all its internal struggles, is an uphill battle. After a transitional period of sixteen months without healing the wounds of the martyrs' families and sentencing the perpetrators, a sense of delayed justice culminating in the acquittals of the police chiefs has placed justice in Egypt in jeopardy. A bloodless path to democracy can only be ensured where "justice is not only done but also seen to be done".          

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