Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
13 - 19 July 2000
Issue No. 490
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The judges are coming

By Omayma Abdel-Latif

The Supreme Constitutional Court's ruling was viewed in judicial circles as bound to boost the judiciary's role in ensuring a smooth transition to a more democratic system.

Judicial sources, speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly, welcomed the ruling, saying it will expand their supervision over parliamentary elections. But some remained sceptical that they will be given full authority as well as the needed material resources in order to do a better job.

"Judges want to ensure the transparency and fairness of the election process," a high-ranking source at the Supreme Judicial Council told the Weekly. "It is more of a national duty, but guarantees should be forthcoming that none of the sides concerned will interfere with their work." The council is an independent body in charge of nominating judges to supervise elections.

The source's statement was interpreted by many as reflecting the desire by judges to remain independent of any influence the executive authority or the ruling party might exercise. The Constitutional Court's ruling lends credence to President Hosni Mubarak's pledge that the upcoming elections would be marked by integrity. It was, in fact, the president who repeatedly stressed the need to expand judicial supervision in order to guarantee a fair election process.

Article 24 of the law on the exercise of political rights, which the court declared unconstitutional, does not ensure full judicial supervision over elections. Rather, it stipulates that judges oversee the major polling stations while auxiliary stations are supervised by government and public sector employees. Opposition parties have repeatedly called for a modification of the law in order to guarantee the judiciary full authority over the election process. But when Law no. 12 of this year was amended, the new reading had it that, in addition to the principal stations, one judge should be appointed to a number of auxiliary stations. The amendment did not state that one judge be appointed to every auxiliary station.

"The modified article can be declared unconstitutional because it does not impose full judicial supervision," Zakariya Shalash, head of the Court of Cassation, told the Weekly. "Were elections to be conducted according to this article, the constitutionality of the forthcoming elections, and the People's Assembly itself, would be open to question."

The court's ruling argued that full judicial supervision entails that a judge be appointed to every auxiliary station. Judges have been calling for auxiliary stations to be supervised because, according to one judge who requested anonymity, "this is where the rigging of votes takes place."

"Judges want to be recognised as a major force in fostering democracy and shaping the rules and regulations of the forthcoming elections," Shalash, who has been supervising elections for the past 20 years, said. "But if the government is reluctant to provide them with guarantees, this may undermine their role in supervising the elections."

The first step towards guaranteeing fair elections, according to Hamed El-Gamal, a former head of the State Council, is for judicial supervision to be imposed, in the absence of the People's Assembly, by a presidential decree that has the force of law, stipulating that every auxiliary station be supervised by a judge. El-Gamal said judges appointed to oversee these stations should also have immunity and independence from the executive authority. In other words, they should not be district attorneys or prosecutors linked to the General Prosecutor's office which, in turn, is attached to the Ministry of Justice. Thirdly, judges should be provided with the required material resources.

However, the implementation of full judicial supervision is not expected to be smooth sailing. Many argue that full supervision would be difficult to achieve in view of the limited number of judges. Currently, the number of judges stands at 9,000 whereas the number needed to cover all polling stations is 42,000. There are 4,800 auxiliary stations in Cairo alone.

Some judges see this as reason enough to organise the elections in stages and not necessarily on the same day. But other judges, speaking before the court's ruling was pronounced, do not favour the idea. In an interview published last month by the Weekly, Mukbel Shaker, head of the Judges' Club, said the number of available judges cannot possibly cover all polling stations nationwide. Shaker said if elections took place over several days it would take no less than two months for the results to be announced.

Shaker did not totally rule out that elections be organised in stages but warned it would be very difficult to implement in a country so heavily centralised as Egypt.

Judges who welcomed the idea said it would be the sole guarantee that the elections would be free and fair. "Dividing the country into major electoral districts will facilitate the task of security forces as well as the judiciary. The whole process would be under control," El-Gamal said

Many analysts believe that an independent judicial authority, once given full control, is bound to play a major role in quashing any attempt to rig the balloting. But they add that the interplay between the executive and judicial authorities will be crucial in deciding the shape of the forthcoming elections.

 

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