Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
3 - 9 August 2000
Issue No. 493
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Front Page

Counting on the courts

By Gamal Essam El-Din

A year ago, Egypt was hit by a crippling economic recession, the consequences of which continue to be felt in the form of a financial banking squeeze and declining sales. By contrast, the domestic scene has been rife with some dramatic political developments.

A new page was turned when President Hosni Mubarak, in his speech to the opening session of the outgoing People's Assembly last November, promised that the next elections would be marked with integrity and the next parliament would be characterised by a more balanced representation.

But the hopes of the main opposition political parties were dashed before the end of parliament's session when their draft law for amending a 1956 electoral law was rejected.

The Supreme Constitutional Court came to the rescue. Reviving the promise of integrity, it ruled on 8 July that the judiciary should supervise all polling stations in parliamentary elections. The ruling was viewed by opposition forces as a major step for enhancing parliamentary democracy in Egypt. It also alerted the attention of Egyptians to the role which the judiciary, in general, and the Supreme Constitutional Court, in particular, can play in reforming the political "exercise."

From a wider perspective, Egyptians were impressed, in the past two months, by a series of court rulings that not only exposed many political deformities and economic shortcomings, but also forced the government to take steps towards redressing these imbalances. Should this be described as "a confrontation between the government and the judiciary?" Leaders of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) insist that there is no confrontation. "It is rather a difference of opinion that does not come at the expense of judicial sovereignty and the supremacy of law," Ahmed Abu Zeid, leader of the NDP parliamentary majority, told Al-Ahram Weekly.

Regardless of whether it is a confrontation or not, it began on 6 June when the Supreme Constitutional Court ruled that last year's non-governmental organisations (NGOs) law is unconstitutional. The ruling was not only embarrassing to the government, but also forced it to acknowledge the necessity of referring a large number of bills to the Shura Council for debate before they are sent to the People's Assembly. It also brought the People's Assembly under stinging criticism from opponents who charged that its debate of draft laws lacked depth and was subject to the will of the government.

The next blow to the NDP came on 25 June when the Supreme State Security Court decided to hand down the maximum penalty against 31 businessmen and bankers in the so-called "case of the loan deputies." The defendants, who were convicted of misappropriating bank funds, included four MPs belonging to the NDP. The ruling amounted to a recommendation for political reform by drawing attention to the need for imposing controls on NDP deputies to thwart the use of parliamentary immunity for making illegal profits.

The most crucial ruling, however, was the Constitutional Court's landmark decision that judges should have full authority to oversee parliamentary elections. The ruling was not only embarrassing to the Ministers of Justice and Parliamentary Affairs but was even viewed as "an earthquake" that might re-shape the political landscape of Egypt for many years to come.

In another ruling, the court decided that MPs should be able to change their designations -- fi'at (professionals) or workers and farmers -- describing the law in force as unconstitutional because it violates article 87 of the constitution, which stipulates that citizens have equal rights and duties. The decision holds important implications because, under the constitution, one half of parliament's seats are reserved for farmers and workers. The ruling triggered calls in the press that the Nasserist classification of MPs into fi'at or workers and farmers should be scrapped because it is no longer viable.

Then, it was the turn of the Administrative Court. This court ruled in July that the elections of the Bar Association should be held within the syndicate's main and branch offices only. This raised to a high degree the hopes of lawyers that their elections would be truly marked with integrity.

More dramatic was the Administrative Court's order on 25 July annulling a decision taken in May by the Political Parties Committee to effectively suspend the publication of the Islamist-oriented Labour Party's mouthpiece, Al-Shaab, and freeze the party's activities. The government-controlled Committee is charged with licensing political parties. As agreed by many political observers, the Administrative Court's ruling, although not final, seriously embarrassed the government and the NDP. The ruling, some asserted, could be used to contest the constitutionality of the 1977 Political Parties Law on which the Committee had based its decision. "This ruling and the previous others will unquestionably affect the future of domestic politics. But what is more exciting is that for public opinion, the judiciary has nearly taken over the role of the political parties in forcing the government to take action in the direction of greater democracy," said Ayman Nour, a Wafdist MP.

Since the establishment of the Supreme Constitutional Court 21 years ago, official statistics show that as many as 180 legal texts (accounting for 11 per cent of all laws passed over this period) were ruled unconstitutional. This fact, and the verdicts of the last two months, tempted some to contest the constitutionality of several other laws.

Topping the list is article 99 of Law 38 for 1972 regulating the performance of the People's Assembly. This article states that "no judicial or legal action can be taken against any MP without the approval of two thirds of parliament's members." According to the lawyer who filed the lawsuit, this article is unconstitutional because it violates article 78 of the constitution, which states that citizens have equal rights and duties. The lawyer argued that MPs are privileged with parliamentary immunity at the expense of other citizens.

The court is expected to convene on 6 August to take a decision. If the court rules that the contested article is unconstitutional, this may greatly reduce the number of candidates, especially businessmen, running in parliamentary elections, Ahmed Taha, an independent MP, told the Weekly. "It will be a ruling in favour of those who are most efficient and in favour of parliamentary democracy and against those whose only objective is parliamentary immunity," said Taha.

Other laws contested with the Supreme Constitutional Court include the law governing chambers of commerce, the housing landlord-tenant law and the newly passed Universities' Law.

Related stories:
A few good men- 27 July - 2 August 2000
A new page is turned - 20 - 26 July 2000
Making history at the Supreme Court - 13 - 19 July 2000


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