'The solution is dissolution'
A Cassation Court order declaring the 2000 parliamentary election result in an East Cairo district invalid has opened up a Pandora's box of questions about judicial supervision of elections. Gamal Essam El-Din reports
The Cassation Court's invalidation of the 2000 parliamentary election results in the East Cairo district of Zeitoun has taken some political observers by surprise. Their astonishment -- and the subsequent debate that has ensued -- originated from the court's declaration that "polling stations in general elections be fully supervised by judges who are independent of the executive (the Justice Ministry)", whereas some of those who supervised Al-Zeitoun station, the court said, "were, rather, members of two authorities affiliated to the Justice Ministry -- the State Cases Authority (SCA) and the Administrative Prosecution Authority (APA)".
The Court of Cassation order triggered a wave of protest. Hossam Abdel-Azim, chairman of the State Cases Authority, described it as "a direct insult to the SCA and the APA". The SCA held an extraordinary meeting on 28 May to respond to the Cassation Court order. Abdel-Azim said the order was issued by "one of the Court of Cassation's circuits, rather than by the board of the Court of Cassation -- the highest judicial authority -- itself. This circuit was entrusted by the People's Assembly to investigate an appeal contesting the results of the elections in Al-Zeitoun. So, this is just a report and the People's Assembly has the right to either accept it or not."
According to Abdel-Azim, deciding whether or not members of the SCA and the APA are judges is not within the Court of Cassation's jurisdiction. "Only the Supreme Constitutional Court is authorised to settle this dispute," he said. Abdel-Azim said that even though "SCA members act as the government's lawyers, the law says they are members of the judiciary and are affiliated to the Higher Council of Judges".
APA members joined forces with Abdel- Azim, emphasising that although their main job is investigating administrative offences, they are also judges in the sense that they are authorised to settle administrative disputes and impose penalties.
Veteran judges like former head of the Judges Club, Yehia El-Rifaie. and Mohamed Selim Al-Awwa don't agree. El-Awwa said he and others had been trying to amend the law regulating the judiciary to exclude members of the SCA and the APA from the Higher Council of Judges. The constitution, in their view, confines members of the judiciary to those who are acting as judges in courts of justice at different levels, not to mention judicial members of the State Council (including the administrative and supreme administrative courts) and the Supreme Constitutional Court.
El-Rifaie was actually the first to bring the issue up. In October 2000, a month ahead of the election, he called attention to the need for judiciary supervision of polling stations to exclude members of the SCA, the APA, as well as members of the prosecution. "They are more like government employees than real judges who can be entrusted with supervising polling stations," said El-Awwa.
The debate began to heat up a bit when opposition parties, led by the Wafd Party, adopted El- Awwa's and El-Rifaie's stance. Leading MPs for the party argued that the Court of Cassation's order was binding, and would also then apply to polling stations in other districts as well. This means, according to these Wafdists, that the entire 2000 parliamentary elections must be considered null and void, which would mean dissolving the current People's Assembly. "The solution is dissolution," said Gamal Badawi, a prominent journalist and Wafdist bigwig.
People's Assembly Speaker Fathi Surour stepped in at this point, however, to make clear that the Assembly had thus far not received the results of the Cassation Court's investigation into the appeal presented to it on Al-Zeitoun. Surour also explained that the appeal was not contesting the validity of Al- Zeitoun MP Zakaria Azmi's parliamentary membership. Azmi, who is also President Hosni Mubarak's chief-of-staff, "was running for the professionals (fi'at) seat", Surour said, while the appeal was contesting the validity of the candidate running for the workers' seat. "This is besides the fact that Azmi won Al-Zeitoun's fi'at seat unopposed," Surour said.
According to prominent Al-Ahram columnist Salama Ahmed Salama, "if anything, the Court of Cassation's recent order shows that parliamentary elections are still far from being marked by integrity, even if they are placed under full judicial supervision."
Salama criticised the government for its adamant refusal to place the 2000 parliamentary elections under the supervision of an independent electoral council -- from A to Z. "This was important not only to prevent the Interior Ministry from manipulating the electioneering process, and ensure the election is marked with integrity, but also to spare the judiciary such futile disputes, and place Egypt on the path of true democratic reform," he wrote.