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Some Judges in Egypt Lend Voice to Chorus for Reform

The World

May 02, 2005|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

ALEXANDRIA, Egypt — The rebellion erupted last month in the sober, stolid quarters of the Alexandria Judges' Club: 1,200 magistrates publicly demanded judicial independence from an all-powerful president, and threatened to refuse to certify fall elections if they didn't get it.

The rare ultimatum has dealt an embarrassing blow to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, amounting to an institutional revolt even as he is under intense pressure to democratize.

At a time when security forces are battling to quash anti-Mubarak demonstrations across the country, an uprising in one of the cornerstones of the Egyptian regime presents a prospect more chilling than any street demonstration. The judges' demand is a symptom of a new, unpredictable energy that has seized Egyptian politics after decades of stagnation -- and of the popular discontent snowballing in the region.

"We guess that this is our chance," said Assam Abdel Gabbar, an Alexandria judge who sits on Egypt's court of appeals, "and we don't believe it will come again anytime soon."

The judges, who are beholden to the executive branch for everything, from their job assignments to the size of their salaries, are demanding that judicial law be reformed to place courts out of reach of the president's authority. They say that in the past they have certified election results but now they want complete oversight over voting this fall.

For the first time in decades, Egyptians have been promised a field of candidates to choose from, in place of past referendums in which Mubarak was the only choice.

The judges acknowledge they are taking advantage of pressure already bearing down on Mubarak's 24-year-old regime. The elections are approaching fast, and U.S. leaders have been unusually critical of Arab dictatorships -- including Egypt, a longtime American ally.

"Our main aim from the start was to choose a time when those abroad would hear us," said Hisham Bastawisi, a Cairo judge on the court of appeals. "The West didn't used to listen to us; now they're listening. They used to listen only to governments and to back up dictatorships, but recently they're listening to the people."

President Bush's emphasis on democratization in the Middle East, coupled with elections in Iraq and the popular uprising in Lebanon, have contributed to a sense of unease among the region's dictatorships. The president rapped Egypt in his State of the Union address for failing to reform, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reinforced that criticism by canceling a trip in February.

Soon after, amid enraged demonstrations in the streets of Cairo, Mubarak made an unexpected announcement: He promised a constitutional amendment to allow multi-candidate elections for the first time in his reign.

If he was hoping to captivate his public, he fell short. Among Egyptians, there is deep skepticism that anybody other than Mubarak will be allowed to win. Many scorn the elections as a cosmetic flourish designed to ease pressure without puncturing a fundamentally dictatorial leadership.

But the president's promise had an effect, albeit unintended: His critics were emboldened, anti-Mubarak demonstrations grew noisier, and the reform movement that calls itself Kifaya, or "Enough," redoubled its rhetoric.

"I'm pretty ... sure change will come," said Hani Anani, a businessman and member of the Enough movement.

"You cannot ask for a big bundle of reforms and they give you only one thing. How can you vote for a president when you don't even know when he'll leave office?"

Egyptian judges have been appealing to the government with the same set of demands since 1991, when the Cairo Judges' Club proposed amendments to the law governing the judiciary.

At the time, the judges recall, the president inaugurated the meeting and spoke of his great respect for the Egyptian judiciary. But he ignored their request, continuing to rule Egypt with martial law.

The basic obstacle to an independent judiciary in Egypt is simple: The justice minister, who represents the executive branch under Mubarak, oversees the selection of judges, decides their salaries, promotions and transfers and which allegations of judicial misconduct merit inquiries.

On the books, the maximum monthly salary for an Egyptian judge hovers between $43 and $86. As one former judge said despondently, it's not even enough to pay the maid. And so the judges depend upon bonuses doled out by the justice minister. Some judges collect as many as 20 checks a month, with the bonus pay and fringe benefits such as transportation costs.

"What's really scary is that the rewards make some judges issue sentences against defendants so as to flirt with the government, so that they'll be remembered," said Nasser Amin, a lawyer and head of the Arab Center for the Independence of the Judiciary and the Legal Profession. "They know what the state wants to see happen in so many of the cases."

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