Al-Ahram Weekly Online   30 June - 6 July 2005
Issue No. 749
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Settlement at the bar?

The long-running clash between the Bar Association's Islamists and Nasserists seems to have cooled down, reports Mona El-Nahhas. But how long will the reconciliation last?

After months of conflict, the Bar Association seems to have worked out its internal political woes. The syndicate's Nasserist front -- led by chairman Sameh Ashour -- and the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood group -- which dominates the council -- finally reconciled last week. At a tense meeting, the two sides chose to leave their differences behind. The unexpected settlement -- which appeared to be tilted in favour of the Brotherhood -- caught most lawyers by surprise.

The main issue at stake was leadership of the syndicate's council. According to the settlement, the secretary-general post went to prominent Brotherhood member Ahmed Seif El-Islam. Brotherhood lawyer Helmi Abdel-Haq became Seif El-Islam's first assistant. The treasurer's post was perhaps the most contentious. Again, it went to a Brotherhood lawyer, Mohamed Toson, a long- standing rival of Ashour's. The treasurer's assistant job also went to a Brotherhood member, Nasser El-Hafi. Brotherhood allies also took the syndicate chairman's first and second deputy seats, with the former going to Wafdist Mahmoud El-Saqqa, and the latter to Mohamed Kamel.

Two new posts were created expressly for supporters of Ashour. Nasserist lawyer Aqef Gad became the new chairman's third deputy, while Said Abdel-Khaleq took the post of Seif El-Islam's second assistant.

The new lineup means the Brotherhood now has full control over the syndicate's financial and administrative affairs. Ashour preferred to describe the dynamic as a combination of political trends within "a national syndicate that is going to serve the interests of lawyers regardless of their political affiliations". He said the syndicate was now united and independent, and would never be affiliated to a certain party or group.

Most importantly, noted Ashour, the agreement would finally end the power struggle that had threatened to place the syndicate under judicial sequestration. (Sequestrated for much the same reason in 1996, the restrictions were only lifted in 2001.)

The Brotherhood, meanwhile, pledged to honour the agreement they had reached with the syndicate chairman.

Many lawyers were sceptical, considering the syndicate's history of conflict. The struggle began in 2001, when Ashour was elected chairman for the first time, and the Brotherhood managed to pick up two-thirds of the council seats. From that moment on, each side has tried its best to marginalise the other; the result has been an overall decline in the performance of the syndicate as a whole. This year's elections -- which took place on 19 March -- generated the same kind of results, with Nasserist Ashour winning the chairman's seat, and the Brotherhood again seizing 15 of the 24 council seats. The equation seemed to promise another four years of internal bickering.

Last week's settlement followed a series of meetings organised by mediators, led by Islamist lawyer Montasser El-Zayyat. These failed to resolve the power struggle, which was heading towards a situation involving the Brotherhood attempting to assign and distribute all the leading posts among themselves. Ashour then threatened to call a general assembly to determine who would end up in control of the syndicate's affairs.

Up until the day the settlement was reached, tension was in the air, including verbal clashes between the two sides. On the big day, a great many Brotherhood lawyers crowded the syndicate's entrances, holding copies of the Qur'an and chanting Islamist slogans. Ashour's supporters were simultaneously demonstrating against the Brotherhood's attempts to dominate the syndicate's affairs.

That heated scene led most lawyers to think nothing would come out of the reconciliation meeting being held between Tosson and Ashour. Their surprise was clear when the two men emerged from the closed meeting holding hands, and telling the assembled lawyers that the battle was over. They called upon their colleagues to drop their quarrels and unite. A loud cheer then filled the syndicate halls: "Long live lawyers' unity".

According to Tosson, the reconciliation occurred because "Ashour had no choice but to act this way, knowing in advance that any escalation with us would not be in his favour, especially since the Brotherhood is so popular in the general assembly. If he had gone to the assembly," Tosson told Al-Ahram Weekly, "he would have come out a big loser". In any case, Tosson said, it made sense that the Brotherhood, which occupies two thirds of the council seats, got so many leading posts.

Sources close to the council attributed Ashour's capitulation to a deal he made with the Brotherhood. According to these rumours, the Brotherhood would support his supposed upcoming bid to run for president.

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