A judicious delay?
assesses the reputation of the judiciary following its supervision of the presidential vote
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Clockwise from left: Egyptians glued to TV screens awaiting the results; jubiliation in Tahrir Square after Mursi's victory; and Shafik's presidential campaign team in despair
At 3pm on Sunday millions of Egyptians were staring at television screens waiting for the Presidential Elections Commission (PEC) to announce the name of the new president. The press conference started 45 minutes later than scheduled. Farouk Sultan, chairman of the PEC, spent what seemed an age reviewing the work done by the commission. It was an hour and a half later that the public got what they had tuned in to hear, and the results of an election that were initially scheduled to be announced three days before, were officially declared.
The results announced by Sultan at 4.30pm were almost identical to figures almost published a week before by Mohamed Mursi's electoral campaign and by the "Judges for Egypt" group. Mursi, said the PEC, had received 13,230,131 of the 25,577,511 valid votes that had been cast, while his rival, Mubarak-era prime minister Ahmed Shafik, secured 12,347380 votes.
So why the delay in announcing the results?
"What happened helped rebuild public trust in the electoral process and in the judiciary," says Nasser Amin, director of the Arab Centre for the Independence of the Judiciary. Yet the Judges for Egypt group was roundly criticised by Cairo Judges' Club for issuing figures supporting the Mursi campaign's own tally. The Judges' Club, currently dominated by Mubarak-era placemen, accused reformist judges of maintaining links with the Brotherhood, claims which leading reformer Zakaria Amin says are nonsense.
Amin may argue -- somewhat questionably -- that recent events have allowed the judiciary to regain a reputation for independence, but even he thinks it is time for judges to be relieved of any responsibility for overseeing polls.
"It is not their job," says Amin. "Judges were used by the former regime to supervise polls in order to provide cover for rigging and inevitably it tarnished the image of judges." The time is ripe, he says, for a permanent independent authority to be established that can then supervise all elections.
The simple fact is many people assumed the poll was being rigged in Shafik's favour. It was a perception reinforced by the intemperate attacks on the Brotherhood launched across state-owned, and many privately-owned, media outlets, by the PEC's own actions and rulings issued by the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC).
On 14 June, two days before run-off polls opened, the SCC declared the law regulating the 2011/2012 parliamentary elections unconstitutional. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) immediately issued a decree dissolving the Islamist-dominated People's Assembly.
Within 24 hours of the People's Assembly being dissolved Justice Minister Adel Abdel-Hamid issued a decree granting military police and intelligence agents powers to detain civilians. Then, on 17 June, SCAF issued an addendum to the 2011 Constitutional Declaration awarding itself legislative authority until the election of a new parliament. In the meantime, petitions remained pending requesting the dissolution not only of the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, but of the Brotherhood itself. Given the general perception that the courts were happy to issue rulings that conformed to SCAF's own priorities, the outstanding petitions, say commentators, provided the generals with a very useful bargaining chip in whatever back channel negotiations were being conducted with the Brotherhood.
PEC, whose impartiality had been questioned by those who objected to its decision not to apply the political isolation law that the People's Assembly had hastily passed even before it was deemed unconstitutional by the SCC, and by its refusal to allow candidates to examine voting lists, justified the delay in announcing results on the grounds that it had first to examine appeals filed against the results. The majority of petitions complained of pre-marked ballot papers, in favour of both candidates, found at the state-owned printing house. Others alleged that thousands of Copts were prevented from casting votes in Upper Egypt and that large numbers of army and police officers had been included on voting lists though they are not allowed a ballot.
As Tahrir Square filled with protesters, the word on the street was that the delays were being used to press the Brotherhood into accepting the complementary constitutional declaration.
"Given Egypt's long legacy of rigged elections and politicised court rulings the public found it hard to swallow that either PEC or the judiciary was acting independently," says Amin.
Talking to the media following the announcement of the results PEC Secretary-General Hatem Bagato argued that, "it would be a disaster if the public really thought of the judiciary in such way." He denied the PEC had been subject to any pressure from SCAF before the announcement of the results.
"I swear nobody knew the results before they were officially announced," Bagato told Al-Haqiqa TV.
Judge Ahmed Mekki, a leading reformer, warns that in the absence of any pressure from SCAF to rig the vote, simply holding a reasonably fair ballot is not sufficient to rehabilitate the reputation of judges. "To achieve this, the public must be given evidence that the judiciary is truly independent, which will only happen when the executive stops interfering in the work of the judiciary."
Among President-elect Mohamed Mursi's first pledges following the announcement of the results was that he would work to ensure judicial independence from both the executive and legislative authorities.
Calls for a purge of the judiciary were voiced loudly last March, when the head of the Appeals Court, Abdel-Moez Ibrahim, pressured a court panel to lift the travel ban imposed against six American defendants in the high profile NGO foreign funding case. They grew even louder in the wake of the 2 June ruling issued by Cairo Criminal Court acquitting six senior Interior Minister officials of any involvement in the murder of almost 1,000 peaceful demonstrators during the uprising that led to the ouster of Hosni Mubarak. The same court also acquitted Mubarak, and his two sons Alaa and Gamal, of charges of corruption and illegal profiteering.