Friday, March 17, 2006


It was a sight to behold. Egyptian judges hailed from all over the country on Friday for a silent stand in their stately club, continuing their struggle for a new law that ensures judicial independence. Swathed in their plush red and green sashes, they stood silently for a little less than an hour as cameras clicked and whirred all around them and a lovely spring sunshine illuminated the proceedings.

Supportive pro-democracy demonstrators momentarily suspended their chants and slogans out of respect for the judges’ wish for a silent stand. For a spell on Friday afternoon, the otherwise hectic Champollion St. was blanketed by an eerie, momentous silence, punctuated only by the gently rustling leaves on the trees bearing witness. Once again, the dignity and persistence of Egypt’s judges fills me with awe.

The large turnout was in part driven by the collective outrage at the questioning of very prominent and popular pro-reform judges such as Assem Abdel Gabar, Nagi Dirbala, and Yahya Galal (top middle three, left to right) by the Supreme Judicial Council. At the emergency general assembly meeting following the silent vigil, the Club honoured them and the other targeted judges. The hugely popular Dirbala in particular received wildly enthusiastic applause, his story made more dramatic by the fact that his son has been barred from appointment to the parquet (niyaba), almost surely in retaliation for the positions of the father.

Before the silent vigil, Kifaya, al-Ghad, Freedom Now, and allied groups marched in support of the judges, led by the two indefatigable and inimitable Kamals (Khalil and Abu Eita). In what I think is a first in Egyptian history, protestors held aloft huge posters of prominent pro-reform judges such as Zakariyya Abdel Aziz, Mahmoud al-Khodeiry, Hisham al-Bastawisi, Ahmad Saber, and Hossam al-Ghiryani. The posters were designed by the energetic young people who organised the thursday evening Tahrir Square sit-in to support judges and journalists. Demonstrators stopped in front of the Judges Club and a curious and inexplicably moving scene unfolded.

Demonstrators chanted the name of Club president Zakariyya Abdel Aziz (top), who stood silently on the Club steps flanked by his colleagues, in quiet acknowledgement of the protestors' heartfelt salute. A fiery young protestor with a formidable voice addressed Abdel Aziz directly and almost angrily: "Stand firm! The pressures on you are immense, stand firm!"

When the relatively unknown Abdel Aziz was first elected Club president back in 2001, no one could have guessed that five years on, his would become nearly a household name. Certainly no one could have imagined that he and his intrepid colleagues would morph into the most potent symbols of Egyptians' desire for political change, repositories of hope, inspiration, and not a little pride. An ordinary citizen who came to observe the judges' stand said, "I'm here because I want change in this state."

It's a lot to ask of judges working under conditions of considerable duress, but the majority of men on the Egyptian bench show no signs of shirking. As judges ended their vigil and made their way to the general assembly deliberations, our honourable judge Hossam al-Ghiryani flashed the victory sign, to the applause and delight of the demonstrators and passersby who lingered to watch.

March has always been a fertile time in Egyptian annals. As with 2005, this year's spring promises new and unexpected developments. At the conclusion of their assembly, judges resolved to stand again on May 25, but this time inside the High Court building, as they had planned for this friday before "the authorities" closed off the court complex. "No rights without sacrifice!" bellowed a judge at the general assembly. And so the saga continues.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

In Omnia Paratus

Two more judges have been tapped for interrogation, this time (and for the first time) both very popular, elected members of the Cairo Judges Club board. Nagi Dirbala (right) and Ahmad Saber (left) are among the 14 board members elected by a landslide during the December 16 elections. Singling them out is a direct slap in the face to the popular will of the majority of judges. Saber is the gifted orator who begins every general assembly meeting with a speech that animates and stimulates the crowd. Dirbala is the extremely hardworking, methodical man behind the scenes: keeping the records, organising the proceedings, taking care of business. Both are devoted Club members and key pillars of the pro-independence alliance. The regime’s trawl has now taken in eight pro-reform judges, prompting inevitable whispers of an impending “new massacre of the judiciary.” As the March 17 extraordinary general assembly approaches, only one thing is sure: judges are now prepared for anything.

Correction: initial reports that Saber was reprimanded proved false. To date, seven (and not eight) pro-reform judges have been apprehended: Hisham al-Bastawisy, Mahmoud al-Khodeiry, Ahmed and Mahmoud Mekky, Yahya Galal, Assem Abdel Gabbar, and Nagi Dirbala.

Monday, March 06, 2006

The Plot Thickens

I say, I never thought executive-judicial relations could be so…what’s the word…ah yes, riveting. For the pedant at heart, nothing could be more absorbing than the tussles within Egypt's remarkable judiciary, with all their intricate twists and turns, their historical resonance, the plethora of detail, and the fascinating play of manoeuvre and counter-manoeuvre. Normal people are really quite the poorer for spurning all this wealth of delightful legal arcana. Absolutely delightful, I say.

You see, it appears that our august but positively curmudgeonly Mr Fathi Khalifa has struck again. Yesterday, he referred two more senior judges for interrogation. Alexandrian Cassation Court vice presidents Yahya Galal (top right) and Assem Abdel Gabbar (top left) allegedly made remarks to the media “disparaging” the Supreme Judicial Council and harming the “dignity of the judiciary,” thundered Khalifa (tut tut). It would appear that Mr Khalifa has grown tired of and perhaps a tad threatened by judges’ outspoken remarks about violence against both them and voters during elections, and their activism for a new law to guarantee judicial independence. In Mr Khalifa’s world, you see, judges must remain forever obedient and submissive to their superiors. They must above all exhibit a healthy dose of deference to the president and his appointees. To demand independence, why that is sacrilege, profanation, vile irreverence!

But note well, our indefatigable Fathi bey is not without some measure of guile. This time, perhaps chastened by the outcry at his
earlier outrage, Khalifa has not stripped the judges of their immunity so that they can be interrogated by non-judges. Instead, acting in his capacity as president of the Cassation Court (not president of the Supreme Judicial Council), he has referred them to internal interrogation by another judge as a possible prelude to meting them a warning (tanbih), as per Article 94 of the existing judiciary law. It’s an oh-so-intricate but real legal distinction. How it will be received is another matter, however. Given the extraordinary friction between the Judges Club and the SJC, fine distinctions are likely to be subsumed by the bigger picture.

And that is: the more that pro-government judges illegitimately pull rank, engage in unprovoked, unjustified, and imprudent actions, and slam the door in the face of even the possibility of negotiation, the more power and prestige accrues to the ever-growing pro-independence faction. It is extremely telling that in his most recent fit of rage, Khalifa railed against the emergent links between the Judges Club and wider civil society forces. The Club “has become a conclave for opposition to the government” and the Alexandria silent protest “has no meaning and was a group of friends who don’t represent judges.” He elaborated, “The Judges Club should not be opened to a bunch of lawyers and journalists, and anyone aggrieved by the government, and the Kifaya movement…this is an exploitation of the atmosphere of freedom to harm others, and to libel and slander senior officials reaching all the way to the president.”

Leaving both the bigger picture and the legal arcana aside for a moment, I confess to being consumed by a vexatious question. It seems as if every action Fathi bey has ever embarked on has led to precisely the opposite of what he intended. Judges’ feisty collective action today is in no small measure pushed along by Fathi bey’s modus operandi. I am worried, is he perhaps not consulting the right people? Might I suggest the lucid tracts of Sun Tzu, Machiavelli, even Clausewitz? A better strategy is long overdue. Mish keda walla eh, ya Fathi bey?!

Friday, March 03, 2006

'Tis the Season

Mahmoud Mokhtar (1891-1934), "al-Khamaseen" (c. 1920s).