The court's ruling to overturn the president's decision to reinstate the dissolved parliament sparked heated debate, reports Khaled Dawoud
The majority of Egypt's judges reacted angrily to President Mohamed Mursi's sudden decision on Sunday to reinstate the parliament that was dissolved by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) a month ago. SCAF's move followed a ruling by the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) on 14 June that the parliament's election law was unconstitutional. Many judges saw the decision as a clear violation of the principle of respecting the independence of the judiciary and its rulings, and called upon the president to respect the rule of law.
However, the ongoing public confrontation between the first ever Muslim Brotherhood president in Egypt's modern history, and the judiciary has led to a heated, unprecedented debate over the independence of Egypt's courts, including the SCC, the country's highest. Mursi's surprising move, which clearly contradicted his original compromise signals to all state institutions whose leaders were appointed by the former Mubarak regime, has also reflected his desire to stress his powers as president, and that he planned to take them seriously to squash the general perception that he was an honorary president controlled by SCAF.
Judge Ahmed El-Zind, head of the Judges' Club, has never been a friend of the Muslim Brotherhood or other opposition groups. When ousted Hosni Mubarak was president, El-Zind was a loyal supporter, and he clashed repeatedly with his opponents. On Monday evening, the controversial judge delivered a stern warning to Mursi. El-Zind gave Mursi a 36-hour ultimatum to rescind his decision and offer an apology to judges, or face what he called "harsher" options. Those options would have included going on strike, bringing the country's judicial system to a halt.
That astonishing warning to the president, something that would have been impossible to imagine under the former heavy-handed president Mubarak, followed open charges from top Muslim Brotherhood leaders that the Constitutional Court ruling on 14 June to dissolve parliament was "political", and came under pressure, or upon a deal with SCAF, to limit the powers of the largest political Islamic group in Egypt. Those charges became even louder after the SCC insisted on its ruling on Tuesday, ordering the dissolution of parliament for the second time.
SCC spokesman Judge Maher Sami went as far as indicating that Mursi could face imprisonment if he refuses to carry out the SCC ruling. "This ruling must be carried out immediately, and the president could face legal action if any citizen filed a lawsuit accusing him of failing to carry out a judicial ruling," Sami said. Those statements came following rumours that the president might resort to a public referendum on the Constitutional Court's ruling to dissolve parliament, where the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and the Salafist Nour Party maintain a near 70 per cent majority.
Against the SCC on Tuesday, Muslim Brotherhood lawyers went as far as charging its judges of "rigging" the first, 14 June ruling to dissolve parliament. Abdel-Moneim Abdel-Maqsoud, who represented the Muslim Brotherhood, claimed to judges that the court's ruling was sent to print in the state's official journal, which puts it into effect, at least three hours before the session was held on 14 June to look into the case. "This confirms that the SCC ruling was political," Abdel-Maqsoud said. He also demanded that the judges be rescinded because of their alleged bias, but his request was turned down and the SCC later confirmed its ruling on Tuesday evening. Abdel-Maqsoud also implied that the SCC judges wanted to punish the parliament because some of its members introduced a draft law to restructure its composition and limit its powers shortly before it was dissolved.
Observers agree that the ongoing confrontation between the president and the judiciary is a reflection of a deeper, more dangerous struggle between the Muslim Brotherhood and SCAF, which now enjoys the support, even if undeclared, of the majority of liberal and secular political parties. SCAF and secular parties are clearly worried that Mursi's decision to reinstate parliament and to challenge the SCC court was only a beginning for a plan by the Brotherhood to control major state institutions, and to remove those who are believed to be loyal to the former Mubarak regime, or those who would oppose their Islamist project.
"They clearly want to Islamicise the state because they believe that the majority they enjoy in parliament allow them to do so," said Amr Hashem Rabie, an expert at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. "President Mursi reinstated the parliament because his Muslim Brotherhood Party had a majority there, and because he wanted to use that majority to issue legislation that would allow him to control the state," he added.
The Muslim Brotherhood leaders insist that the parliament that was elected by 27 million Egyptians late last year was "the only legitimate, elected body that reflected the people's will," said leading Brotherhood figure Ahmed Abu Baraka. He described the SCC ruling as mounting to "political thuggery". He claimed that even if the parliament's election law was unconstitutional, it only applied to one-third of the members, and not the entire elected body. He also argued that SCAF Commander Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi had no right to issue a decree ordering the dissolution of parliament on the basis of the SCC ruling, considering that it came out only three days before the second round of voting that led to Mursi's victory on 17 June. "He [Tantawi] should have definitely left the decision on how to implement the Constitutional Court ruling to the new president," Abu Baraka argued. "The military and the Constitutional Court cannot deal with such disregard with a legitimate, elected body," he added.
The SCC had ruled that the parliament's election law was unconstitutional because it allowed candidates representing political parties to compete over one-third of the seats designated for independent, individual candidates. The court said this violated the principle of equal opportunity because political parties enjoyed far more capabilities to back their candidates compared to individual hopefuls. While the articles in the election law that were questioned in front of the SCC were those related to the one-third of the seats dedicated to individual candidates only, the court had noted in its ruling that this invalidated the entire parliament, and that new elections should be held.
Ahmed Mekki, former deputy-chief of the Court of Cassation and who is known for his sympathies towards the Muslim Brotherhood, argued that President Mursi "had the full right to practice his power and cancel SCAF's decision to dissolve parliament." He added that Mursi's move "did not violate the court ruling, and it even confirmed its respect of it. What the president cancelled was Tantawi's decision and not that of the court. Mursi said let us look into how to implement the SCC ruling, and hold new elections for parliament as soon as a new constitution has been drafted."
The parliament held a brief session on Tuesday to assure the implementation of the president's decree. But parliament speaker Saad El-Katatni only decided to refer the SCC ruling to the Court of Cassation to look into the validity of the membership of one-third of the members.
But that's not a view shared by most judges and constitutional experts. Ibrahim Darwish, a renowned legal expert known for his secular views, said he believed Mursi's decision "was worse than the 1967 defeat" of Arab armies by Israel. He added that "respecting the independence of Egypt's judiciary and its rulings is a sacred principle, and the state will collapse if we start questioning the judges and their independence."
The judiciary has largely been respected by the majority of Egyptians, even though there have been repeated charges of limited corruption and pressure from the former Mubarak regime. However, Rabie, of Al-Ahram Centre, points out "it was the SCC that stood up to Mubarak throughout his 30 years in office, and protected basic democratic rights in many cases. We cannot come now and charge that it is a political body only because it ruled against what the Muslim Brotherhood wants."
The worst part for the majority of Egyptians is that they now feel lost and confused by sharply contradicting legal arguments and views by dozens of constitutional experts, judges and former judges. "Mursi started an unnecessary battle at a time when nearly all Egyptians were looking to restore stability and start to feel hopeful after the election of a new president," said Mansour Hassan, a former minister of information who at one time announced his desire to run for president. The nearly 80-year-old Mansour who enjoys the respect of many Egyptians said that Mursi's decision "led to a deep split in society and among youths who supported the 25 January Revolution."