Friday, December 16, 2005

And Then There Was One

It’s neatly fitting that the final elections capping this remarkable Egyptian electoral year will be by and for the judiciary. In a few hours, the Egyptian Judges Club will witness its most critical elections since the March 1969 poll. At stake is not simply a new Club chairman and governing board, but at least two foundational issues: the very tenor of executive-judicial relations for the next several years, and the matter of which institution will be the legitimate representative of judges, the Club or the Supreme Judicial Council. For the past several days, the Club has been awash in the electoral paraphernalia and leaflets of opposing camps, some of suspiciously high quality (glossy booklets and all). And judges are arguably more mobilised than they have ever been, even more than during the critical 1969 elections. Rather than a pro- and anti-regime bloc, however, the judicial electorate is split along much more intricate lines. The nodal concern is how to manage the now thoroughly public and even internationalised spat with executive authorities, still extremely raw after the bloody parliamentary elections. In short, a real battle, with a completely unknowable outcome of enormously high consequence. Does it get any better than this? Let the voting begin.

It’s rather foolish to say much at this point, no doubt. But I can’t resist some broad strokes. Let’s begin with the three contending blocs. It’s difficult to imagine that judges would have mobilised so spectacularly this year without the incumbent leadership team headed by Zakariyya Abdel Aziz and fellow travellers (Dirbala, Geneina, Saber, Mekky et al). The trajectory of Abdel Aziz is a story unto itself, worthy of a more careful narrative at another time. For now, be it noted that irate strongmen within the regime are especially keen on sweeping out Abdel Aziz and party and installing their own pliable supporters.

Enter Cassation Court judge Adel al-Shorbagi and posse, the regime’s new team after the jettisoning of trusty but crusty stalwart Moqbel Shaker and his goons. Old-timers will recall that Shaker started his reliable pro-regime service as a promising young buck brought in by Justice Minister Mohamed Abou Nosseir in the 1969 manoeuvre that ousted Mumtaz Nassar and Yahya al-Refai’s intrepid board. The traces of history are all over this election, another story for another time. But the last days of 2005 are fundamentally different than 1969, when even at its weakest, Nasser’s regime was more coherent, more competent, and certainly savvier than the bumbling behemoth we’re contending with today. Mish keda walla eh?!

To make matters even knottier, Abdel Aziz’s consistently high-profile activism this year has begun to alienate non-negligible segments among men of the bench. Abdel Aziz was exceptionally energetic after the second stage of voting. He was behind the controversial plea calling on the armed forces to help protect judges and voters (as per Law 73/1956). He met with Port Said judges to reassure them that they won’t be attacked in the run-offs. After Noha al-Zeiny’s
revelations, he invited other judges supervising the poll in Damanhour to offer their own testimonials, collating them in a detailed letter sent to the Minister of Justice and certified by esteemed Alexandrian magistrate Mahmoud al-Khodeiry. In short, he was acting like the president of the judges, actively negotiating with Justice Minister Mahmoud Abu al-Layl and shuttling from city to city, listening to and aggregating the concerns of colleagues. As we know, Mubarak’s regime loathes independent leadership of any sort, especially the dangerous kind of stewardship that has an effective constituent base. The task is thus clear: Abdel Aziz must go (back to Tanta would be best).

Cautious judges not necessarily on the regime’s side wonder if Abdel Aziz’s modus operandi is the best strategy to obtain their cardinal goal: a new law for the judiciary. They’re worried that brinksmanship and bold escalation not only render a new law more unlikely, but expose their profession to dangerous appropriation and even further infiltration by hostile outsiders. It’s a legitimate concern, increasingly shared by many upstanding judges. The latest reports tell of eleventh hour defections from Aziz’s coalition over precisely these issues (by Hisham Abu Alam and Farouq Darwish, specifically).

To thicken the already intricate plot, a third faction has emerged headed by relative unknown Ihab Abdel Muttalib, a Cassation Court judge. His platform is unity of the ranks and rapprochement with the Supreme Judicial Council, but without giving up on the demand for a new judicial law. The claim is appealing, but questions remain as to the real origins of this new faction. Is it a covert regime attempt to split the votes for Aziz, or a genuine coalescence of an alternative, ostensibly more productive third way?

Who wins will determine how judges will face off with a regime still intent on denying them autonomy, how the Judges Club of Egypt will continue to stake its claim to be the only truly independent representative of the judicial general will, as against nefarious government usurpers such as the Supreme Judicial Council, and indeed how other corporate sectors in Egyptian society will organise their own future collective efforts for self-governance and independence from the dictatorial grip of the executive. I know I’m not the only one watching with baited breath. Annus mirabilis.