pressure on judges to toe the line
Mubarak government cracks down on jurists advocating
judicial and election reforms
Dan Morrison, Chronicle Foreign Service
May 6, 2006
Cairo -- Facing his
colleagues inside the small hearing room at the High Court building in downtown
Cairo, Hesham Bestawissi could hear the faint chants of several hundred
protesters outside as they squared off against more than 10,000 black-clad riot
A high-ranking appeals
court judge, Bestawissi had been in this room many times, presiding over the
trials of fellow jurists accused of corruption and judicial misconduct. But this
time, the 55-year-old jurist was the defendant, charged with defaming Egypt's
judiciary by publicizing alleged vote-rigging during tumultuous elections last
This trial, and a wider
crackdown on reformist judges, is the latest and perhaps most far-reaching flash
point in the Egyptian government's effort to consolidate control after a year of
"It was like war,''
Bestawissi said of the scene outside the High Court last week, where police shut
down several blocks of downtown Cairo, beating and arresting several
demonstrators. "It's the first time a judge has been tried for expressing his
opinion. It's the first time a judge of my stature has faced charges.''
Just a year ago, Egypt --
under pressure from within and without -- was showing signs of new openness.
Competitive presidential and parliamentary elections were promised, and massive
street demonstrations called for a new political order. Egypt's judges
threatened to withhold certification of the elections unless there were new
guarantees of fairness.
When the electoral dust
cleared, President Hosni Mubarak had been re-elected in a walk, the outlawed
Muslim Brotherhood -- whose candidates ran as independents -- took a surprising
20 percent of the seats in parliament, and a new election law all but guaranteed
Mubarak's National Democratic Party would hold the presidency for the
It was time for payback.
Ayman Nour, who placed a distant second to Mubarak with 7 percent of the vote,
was convicted of forgery and sent to prison. He faces new charges, including
idolatry, and his wife has been charged with assaulting a police officer. The
Muslim Brotherhood has seen scores of its members arrested this year.
Now the vise is closing
on the resisters in robes. Bestawissi and another judge, Mahmoud Mekki, will be
removed from the bench if they are convicted of administrative charges that
include insulting the judiciary, working in politics and talking to the media.
There are 8,000 judges in
Egypt, all of them former prosecutors. The judiciary's budget is set by the
Ministry of Justice. The Supreme Judiciary Council, which oversees the courts,
is controlled by the government. The judges have been pushing since 1991 for a
new law that would make them an independent branch of government, rather than
under the thumb of the executive branch.
Last year, the Judges
Club released reports alleging fraud during a referendum on Egypt's new election
law and during the September presidential elections. A third report detailing
alleged misconduct during the December 2005 parliamentary elections is in the
"Everyone who raised
their heads during the pro-reform period has now come under attack by the
government,'' said Joshua Stacher, a Cairo-based doctoral student at the
University of St. Andrews in Scotland who is writing his thesis on Egyptian
politics. "The judges are the most important example.''
Egypt's parliament voted
Sunday to extend the state of emergency that has been in place since Mubarak,
now 78, first took power in 1981. During last year's campaign, he had promised
to lift the state of emergency, which gives police and intelligence services
broad arrest powers. Last month, the government announced it would postpone
local elections for two years.
A stalwart ally of the
United States, Mubarak has portrayed the courthouse battle as an in-house
dispute among judges.
"I will not intervene
between judges out of respect for the judiciary's independence and esteem for
its judges,'' he said in a recent interview with the Arabic language al-Gomhuriya
"It's a lie, and he knows
it,'' Bestawissi says, smoking a cigarette in the sitting room of his
upper-middle-class apartment in the Nasr City section of Cairo.
Bestawissi's living room,
with its faux-French furniture and shelves full of law books, is clearly the
domain of a member of Egypt's elite. The son of a lawyer, Bestawissi says he
became a judge "to defend human rights, to help people. We are making the rules
to understand the law, and the other (lower) courts must follow those rules. I
Yet he has probably tried
his last case. There is only one logical outcome to his trial, Bestawissi said
without evident rancor: removal from the bench. He said that he may try to
practice law, but he predicted that official harassment would eventually lead to
his disbarment and possible arrest.
"Look at Ayman Nour,'' he
His three sons, two of
them law students, support his kamikaze stand. But the wider legal community may
be less enthusiastic.
Of the 8,000 judges, an
estimated 1,000, at most, are actively working for an independent judiciary,
Stacher said. Of those, 30 are considered leaders, and 10 of them already face
various government-imposed sanctions.
"They can pick these
people off one at a time,'' Stacher said. "The judges are in for some darker
times. The long-term ramifications will be devastating for judicial autonomy.''
In the end, Bestawissi
said, judges are becoming political figures for their very refusal to take part
in ruling party politics.
"Judges are not the
opposition,'' said Hala Mustafa, a dissident member of the National Democratic
Party's policy committee. The government's resort to "aggressive measures could
give the signal that the regime is finished compromising.''
resumes Friday. Asked if it was too late to save his career, Bestawissi replied,
"It's never too late. All I have to do is say that we have a good government,
good elections, a good judiciary. That's all.''
Source: San Francisco Chronicle