THE BLOG

Showdown in Egypt's Halls of Justice

Coauthored with Roshanna Lawrence.

Glancing through Arab media headlines and social-media networks would leave one thinking that the idiom "Brotherhoodization" has become a dictionary term. In Egypt, the birthplace of the Muslim Brotherhood, public institutions have fallen like dominos to the group's influence. With the military largely unwilling to embroil itself in domestic politics, Egypt's defiant judiciary has become the last man standing against an unrelenting Brotherhood campaign to assert its power. Under the veiled banner of smoking out Mubarak-era influences, the Muslim Brotherhood seems poised to fire its final shot.

Recently proposed amendments in the Brotherhood-dominated Shura Council to reform the government's judicial oversight body have sparked a firestorm of criticism. The Brotherhood-loyal Wasat Party sponsored amendments that will grant absolute authority for selecting Egypt's top prosecutor to the president, wresting appointment powers from the Supreme Judicial Council. The law would additionally result in the firing of over 3,500 judges by lowering the retirement age from seventy to sixty, enabling the Morsi administration and its newly appointed provincial governors to install their own loyalists. Meanwhile, an unrelenting Brotherhood campaign of criticism spurred the resignation of Justice Minister Ahmed Mekki in protest on April 21, followed by the resignation of presidential legal advisor Mohammed Fouad Gaddah two days later.

Tensions between the Muslim Brotherhood and the judiciary have peaked since the former's ascension to power, particularly following the Supreme Constitutional Court's dissolution of parliament's Islamist-dominated lower house in 2012. Divides deepened in the wake of a controversial November 2012 presidential decree. The decree temporarily granted judicial immunity to presidential decisions, with Morsi himself reasoning that the courts remained loyal to Mubarak.

Such allegations have increased with the Cairo Criminal Court's approval in April of appeals by former President Hosni Mubarak for his release. While President Mubarak will likely not be released from prison due to charges of squandering public funds, the rulings further added weight to Islamist allegations of Mubarak-judiciary ties. The newly proposed amendments in the Shura Council have likewise been branded as a campaign to "purge the judiciary" of Mubarak's influence, in a likely effort to rally support from the secular and liberal facets of society which led the efforts to oust him.

This tactic isn't new--the November presidential decree was packaged with a Mubarak retrial and the sacking of the loathed Prosecutor General. However, to their likely dismay, then and now, the Brotherhood's efforts to portray their campaign as a crusade against the past has increased fear and paranoia amongst their political rivals. Criticism has broadened beyond the traditional liberal/secular opposition, and has now included outcries of Brotherhoodization from major ultraconservative Salafist parties, long considered to be the Brotherhood's natural postrevolutionary political partners.

Morsi's cabinet reshuffle, announced this week, will additionally fan the flames of Brotherhoodization. Despite opposition demands, President Morsi is likely to use this opportunity to rotate in another round of Islamist loyalists, as seen by the recent appointment of Brotherhood members to provincial governorships. These attempts are likely to be perceived by the opposition National Salvation Front as yet another step to limit secular/liberal influence, further driving them into a corner as they weigh a boycott of October 2013 parliamentary elections.

Despite the continued political and legislative onslaught, Egypt's judiciary isn't showing any signs of quitting. The Shura Council's push for the passage of the judicial authority law is likely to encounter a number of legal obstacles. Article 170 of the constitution preserves the independence of the judiciary, stipulating that judges cannot be dismissed. In addition, article 169 states that the courts must "be consulted on the draft laws governing [their] affairs". Should the law be adopted, the judiciary is likely to challenge or otherwise overturn the legislation based on such stipulations.

Meanwhile, a number of key court cases are slated for the coming weeks, including Mubarak's retrial by the Cairo Appeal Court on May 11; the Supreme Constitutional Court's ruling on the disbanding of the Shura Council on May 12; the Supreme Administrative Court's decision on the dissolution of the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party and the Salafist al-Nour Party on May 18; and the Cairo Administrative Court's ruling on the dissolution of the Muslim Brotherhood itself on June 25.

The Egyptian court system has repeatedly ruled against Brotherhood and government appeals, even after physical intimidation at courthouses forced their delay. Most recently, the Supreme Administrative Court dismissed the Morsi administration's appeal against a ruling to suspend parliamentary elections originally slated for April.

Meanwhile, the Shura Council's amendments are one step closer to passage, with the legislative and constitutional affairs committee approving the legislation for discussion in a forthcoming plenary session. While Morsi has recently made overtures to the opposition, pledging to take support judges' recommendations on the amendments, Islamists in the Shura Council appear to have little intention of heeding the president's calls. Regardless of whether the legislation is passed, the upcoming hearings are likely to widen the gap between the Muslim Brotherhood and its opponents--threatening to prolong a political crisis that has exacted huge damage on Egypt's economy and chased away investor confidence.

Like any other postrevolutionary nation, the purging of Egypt's governing institutions from the influences of the Mubarak regime are as natural as the flow of the Nile. In a surprising demonstration of political shrewdness, however, Egypt's judiciary has transformed itself from a remnant of a much-hated dictatorship to the last institution holding back the rise of another.

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