Sameh Ashour: The boundaries of respect
Lawyers Syndicate Chairman Sameh Ashour thinks the nation's first multi-candidate presidential elections -- set for this September -- are premature. The former Nasserist MP, whose tenure as head of the syndicate has seen alternating periods of confrontation and compromise with the Muslim Brotherhood, clearly has a unique perspective on the future of democratic reform in Egypt. He spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly about the receding influence of the Lawyers' Syndicate, which was once at the vanguard of the nation's political scene, and doesn't look to be making a comeback any time soon
Interview by by Aziza Sami
Sameh Ashour, head of the Lawyers Syndicate, looks up from his papers. He is clearly preoccupied. The independent press has reported he will be running in September's presidential elections.
"Not true," he says, without further comment.
Ashour has been head of the syndicate for the past four years, elected first in 2001 and then winning a second, landslide victory in February 2005. A former deputy-head of the Nasserist Party and a Nasserist MP from 1995 to 2000, he relinquished his membership of the party in order to contest the syndicate elections.
"Convention dictates that you cannot belong to a party and head the syndicate at the same time. If I was still a member of the party I would have to abide by its resolutions which runs against the grain of a nationalist, non-partisan syndicate."
Ashour voices his views in measured tones, never appearing over-emphatic. This seeming mildness conceals just how adept Ashour has been in winning an extended battle for control over the Lawyers Syndicate which oversees the interests of some 230,000 lawyers. For the past four years, ever since he took the helm in fact, Ashour has been faced with a grueling struggle, sometimes explosive, sometimes punctuated by periods of calm, between the well-organised Muslim Brotherhood and the nationalist current he represents. The battle to control the syndicate's board has ended in a compromise which "while it does not totally satisfy either side is one we all have to accept".
The compromise involved agreeing with Brotherhood-affiliated members of the board that the distribution of management responsibilities be proportionate with the actual numbers of seats held by each faction. The board currently comprises 14 independent and partisan members and 10 affiliated to the Brotherhood.
Ashour inherited the struggle from his predecessor, the late Ahmed El-Khawaga, following intermittent phases during which the syndicate had been placed under public sequestration. Today he sees the challenges he faces as "double- edged": one, political, is to "elevate the syndicate above political and partisan affiliations and keep it a truly national body"; the other, related to the profession itself, involves "upgrading standards in law faculties, restricting the number of graduates and undertaking the measures necessary to compete with the multinational conglomerates and firms that will enter the market once the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) is implemented".
The question remains, though, to what extent ongoing internal disputes will hamper the syndicate in achieving these goals. Certainly there is a perception that internal weaknesses have negatively affected its public performance over questions on which others are becoming increasingly vocal, including democratic reform. Compared to the Judges Club, the Lawyers Syndicate has remained largely silent over the matter of independent judicial supervision of the upcoming elections. Neither has it taken any position on the international monitoring of elections.
Ashour concedes that internal dissent has had an impact on public perceptions of the syndicate's role: "The political struggle between the Brotherhood and other factions has," he says, "held us back. You must also bear in mind that when the judges voice opposition towards electoral supervision they do so from a professional, and not a political, position, because what they are seeking is to safeguard their independence as judges. They want to have real and serious responsibility for supervising the elections. Lawyers have been protesting against, and in some instances boycotting, certain work for decades. It is just that when the judges protest it is something of a novelty, which is why they have gained so much media attention."
Not that Ashour is willing to accept that the syndicate has forsworn any public political role. He points to the clear position the syndicate adopted towards the US-led invasion of Iraq when it was "the only body to call for an emergency meeting of the Arab Lawyers Federation". The syndicate has adopted equally clear positions towards Israel's many transgressions of Palestinian rights.
Domestically, the syndicate has campaigned against the extension of emergency laws, filing a draft proposal with the National Council for Human Rights to end its provisions. It is also in the process of establishing a committee that will formulate proposals for amendments to the constitution. It is, says Ashour, something the syndicate "needs to do in order to participate positively rather than simply reacting to modifications suggested by the NDP".
He does, however, remain "unhappy, as head of the syndicate, with our performance, not least because, in this struggle, we are witnessing our own problems vis-æ-vis democracy".
For many the heyday of the Lawyers Syndicate came in the 1970s when political parties and major opposition figures gathered beneath its umbrella. Ashour was at the time a recent graduate, while the syndicate, under Ahmed El-Khawaga, a Nasserist with a nationalistic bent, pursued highly publicised and often ferocious battles on domestic and foreign policy, tackling democracy, economic liberalisation and the Camp David Peace Accords.
El-Khawaga, a brilliant lawyer and astute syndicalist who in all his manoeuvres maintained he was pursuing "national not factional interests ", remains for Ashour a role model. So how does Ashour measure his own performance, and that of the syndicate, against the decade of the seventies?
"Frankly speaking, I'm not very happy with the situation and we do have an internal problem that is greatly impeding us. But comparisons between now and the seventies or eighties are not really fair."
In the earlier decade the Lawyers Syndicate was able to act in concert with the newly established political parties.
"The founding of both the Wafd and Nasserist parties was announced inside the syndicate and most of the other opposition parties were embraced by it. Now there are 15 parties, each with a paper that sheds light on its leaders and activities."
The political climate, he says, has "changed enormously".
"Let me give an example. The case of the tourist investment project to develop the Pyramids Plateau is instructive. It would, said many experts, harm Egypt's archaeological heritage, and a massive national campaign was launched and the scheme eventually abandoned. Yet today there are probably 500 schemes underway, and the effects they will have are possibly even more harmful than the Pyramids Plateau project. Yet does anyone speak about them? The response of people to such issues has changed, and this applies even to subjects as significant as the Camp David Accords".
On the issues raised by the amendment of Article 76 of the constitution Ashour's position is unequivocal: the amendment, which allows for multi-candidate presidential elections, while commendable, was premature.
"The move from referendum to election is a historic achievement that will come to be attributed to President Mubarak," he says. "It will be the first time in Egypt's history that rulers will change not because of death, coups d'état or hereditary succession but because elections have been held between more than one candidate."
Ashour has reservations, however, expressed in a written statement to the ruling NDP. The amendment was, he argues, introduced with too much haste, and should have been preceded by a reform of the system of political representation, including local councils, the People's Assembly and Shura Council.
"I requested the implementation of any amendment to Article 76 be delayed for two years, allowing time for greater consultation and the preparation of amendments that would be enacted in tandem. It is really not possible for the NDP to think and act on behalf of the Egyptian people". His request elicited a lukewarm reaction from both the government and opposition.
"Now I think the government might be regretting it rejected the proposal. What would have been wrong with the president, after a referendum, remaining for an additional two years? Why the rush to issue a law that in the end reflects only the views of the ruling NDP? They have imprisoned the democratic process which is why our rejection of the amendment to Article 76 in its present form is so clear."
The noise of 26 July Street is drowned out by the constant drone of the air conditioning, a device that looks out of place lodged near the high-ceiling of the 1930s office that is home to Ashour's legal practice. Ashour's father was also a lawyer and parliamentarian who, before the 1952 Revolution, was affiliated to the Liberal Constitutionalist Party. He instilled in his son a "love of the profession".
"I venerated it," says Ashour. "I used to accompany my father and watch the lawyers who came from Cairo to our home town of Sakolta in Upper Egypt to undertake the defence in different law suits. At the time, too, lawyers had a public role -- they were at the vanguard of nationalistic action and of progressive thinking."
That this is no longer the case is due to several reasons, believes Ashour, not least among them the political atmosphere.
"The aspirations, the mood and the standards of the legal profession have changed. The predominance of the Brotherhood within the syndicate is a result of a political system that -- in universities and elsewhere -- repressed all partisan or political expression. There can be no Nasserist, Wafdist or even NDP candidate working publicly, or allowed to hold a meeting. Who is left to fill the vacuum? Only one faction, the groups operating under the umbrella of religion which means, in effect, the Brotherhood. And so they rally students around them."
His mobile rings and he closes it without checking the name of the caller.
"I attribute this political situation to the late President Sadat. Now, as a result, there is no frame of reference except religion. Add to this the Brotherhood's organisational abilities and the outcome is what you see today."
Democratic reform, argues Ashour, depends less on "legislative amendments than on creating a climate of democracy".
"The government, or administrative apparatus, is not even convinced that it must implement laws that already exist. There is a culture of forgery, and it swings into action the moment the nominations to parliament are open. Local authorities and the security apparatus tend to act in the interest of the NDP candidate."
The waiting room outside is filling with clients.
Ashour practices criminal, as well as civil, law but it is the former that is his favourite. He works long hours, leaving his office late, often around 11 or 12 o'clock. The legal profession seems to have defined his life. His elder son is a prosecutor, "and I am trying to persuade my younger son, who is now finishing school, in the direction of studying law."
Opposite the building in which his office is found is the High Court, the 1920s edifice that bears witness to a time many see as the apogee of the legal profession. And as a young lawyer Ashour trained in the building next to that housing his own office, in the practice of lawyer Mahmoud Abdel-Latif. He mentions others who influenced him, amongst them, Mostafa El-Baradei and Abdel-Aziz El-Shorbagi, an independent lawyer with whom Ashour was briefly imprisoned in the crackdown on opposition figures Sadat ordered in September 1980, a month before his assassination.
His election as head of the syndicate was, says Ashour, his "greatest aspiration", though he regrets that circumstances have not allowed him to play "a more effective role".
He remains aware of the need to build bridges with the government and, where necessary, bend in the face of the status quo.
"We have never really confronted for the sake of confrontation," he says. "There have been three trends inside the syndicate. One was to have a leader representing the government, and also co-opted by it. Another was to elect a candidate able to confront, to use the threat of confrontation to force the government to meet the syndicate's demands." Ashour sees himself as a representative of the third way.
His victory, over a Brotherhood and a government supported candidate, shows, he believes "that lawyers had opted to act from a national perspective".
"If confrontation will end in defeat then we will not confront. Our opinions can differ from those of the government and we will still make our demands. And this is not compromise. It is, rather, a matter of pursuing negotiations within the boundaries of a respectful relationship."