Not a lifetime job
Attempts to remove Prosecutor-General Mahmoud from his job have been caught up in legal and constitutional restrictions, writes Mona El-Nahhas
The clash that erupted between the presidency and the judiciary recently ended on Saturday with a presidential announcement saying that the prosecutor-general, Abdel-Meguid Mahmoud, would remain in his post following earlier attempts to remove him.
Reacting to the announcement, a statement by the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC) expressed the council's appreciation of the president's response to the desire of the prosecutor-general to retain his position.
The presidential announcement was made during a press conference held on Saturday at the presidential headquarters. Vice President Mahmoud Mekki told reporters that there had been a misunderstanding over Mahmoud's acceptance of the new post assigned to him by the presidency following his removal as prosecutor-general.
On 11 October, a presidential decree appointed Mahmoud Egypt's ambassador to the Vatican. According to Mekki, the procedure used to make the appointment had been correct and Mahmoud had given oral approval a few hours before the issuing of the decree. Mekki blamed the media for using the word "dismissal", saying that it had been this that had led to the later crisis.
In a later development, the Foreign Ministry denied on Sunday that Mahmoud's nomination papers had been sent to the Vatican two weeks ago.
The press conference with Mekki came after a three-hour meeting at the presidential headquarters during which members of the SJC in the presence of the prosecutor-general handed President Mohamed Morsi a petition expressing Mahmoud's desire to remain in office.
Mekki was present at the meeting, and later presidential spokesman Yasser Ali said that the decree appointing Mahmoud as ambassador to the Vatican had not been meant "in a spirit of revenge".
The aim, Mekki said, had been to shield the prosecutor-general from public anger stirred up in the wake of a recent court ruling that cleared the 24 suspects in the "Battle of the Camel" case, all of whom were close to the ousted former regime.
A few hours after the issuing of the Criminal Court's ruling on 10 October, dozens of people from different political forces demonstrated in front of the downtown headquarters of the Judiciary, where the offices of the prosecutor-general are located, in order to press for Mahmoud's dismissal and for his being referred for trial.
Other demands included a purge of the country's judiciary. The prosecutor-general and several other senior figures in the judiciary are sometimes seen as being close to the former regime.
The performance of the prosecutor-general has been subject to criticism since his appointment by ousted former president Hosni Mubarak in 2006. Before the 25 January Revolution, Mahmoud upheld several rulings clearing figures from the former regime.
After the revolution, accusations that he had presented weak evidence to the courts during the prosecution of such figures were levelled at Mahmoud, many arguing that he had been behind clearing those charged with killing the demonstrators during the revolution.
However, judicial sources revealed that the investigations in the "Battle of the Camel" case were not conducted by the prosecution-general. Judges delegated by the Cairo Appeals Court were assigned to follow the investigation instead, the sources said, though these statements did little to convince some members of the public, who insisted that the prosecutor-general had been at least partially responsible for the recent court ruling.
On Thursday, the presidency stated that the decree appointing Mahmoud ambassador to the Vatican was in line with public pressure to purge the country's judiciary and to introduce fresh blood into the institution.
Presidential adviser for legal affairs Fouad Gadallah was quoted as saying that the presidential decree was legally sound, as it conformed to Article 56 of the Constitutional Declaration that gives the president the right to appoint top state officials.
Morsi's decree, while satisfying a majority of the public, was met with fury by judges. Hundreds of judges visited the prosecutor-general's residence on Friday to declare their support for him, and meetings were held at the headquarters of the Cairo Judges Club and at judges clubs in the different governorates in order to discuss the repercussions of the decree.
Harsh statements were issued by judges who condemned what they called attempts to dismiss the prosecutor-general and interfere in the work of the judiciary. News that a general assembly would be held on Sunday to consider further steps was also reported.
"What has happened has ended the rule of law in Egypt," said judge Alaa Kandil, a board member of the Cairo Judges Club.
"It's a mournful day for the history of the judiciary. The decree, which violates the law, is the beginning of a new attack on the judiciary similar to that which took place in 1969 during the time of late president Gamal Abdel-Nasser," said judge Zakaria Shalash, chief justice of the Giza Criminal Court.
Chair of the Cairo Judges Club judge Ahmed Al-Zend, known for his association with the former regime, blamed the president's advisors for causing the crisis and endangering Egypt's future.
Judge Ezzat Agwa, chair of the Alexandria Judges Club and a close ally of Al-Zend, expressed the hope that the president would recall the decree and apologise to the judiciary.
For his part, the prosecutor-general defied the decree and said that he would remain in his post, arguing that he could not be dismissed. He was taking this stance in order to defend the judiciary's independence, he said.
In statements to the media, Mahmoud said that he had been pressured by Justice Minister Ahmed Mekki and Constituent Assembly chairman judge Hossam Al-Ghiriani to accept the new post.
However, sources close to the prosecutor-general said that Mahmoud had at first accepted the post without any pressure, but after receiving phone calls from certain judges who advised him not to leave his job and promised to back him he had changed his mind.
According to Article 67 of the judicial authority law, the prosecutor-general cannot be dismissed. He can only submit his resignation, accept a new post, or reach the age of retirement. Mahmoud will reach retirement age in 2016.
However, judge Zakaria Abdel-Aziz, former chair of the Cairo Judges Club, said that the immunity that judges enjoy does not prevent them from being questioned in cases where they are suspected of committing violations.
Dozens of complaints against judges accused of making politicised rulings or rigging polls during the Mubarak era are now at the office of the justice minister, who should delegate a judge to investigate such complaints.
Sources close to the minister said that he was reluctant to take this step, since it could look as if he was "settling old accounts".
Reactions to the presidential decree varied. At a time when secularist and civil political forces have been expressing their reservations at alleged attempts to interfere in the affairs of the judiciary, the Islamist parties met the decree with relief.
Essam Al-Erian, acting chair of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, called upon the prosecutor-general to accept the new post, noting that the other available options would not be easy.
Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya called for Mahmoud's being referred for trial, and group members said that they would gather in front of his office in order to prevent him from entering.
The attempt to dismiss the prosecutor-general is considered as the second clash between the presidency and the judiciary. The first was in last July, when Morsi issued a decree reinstating the parliament, which had been dissolved by a Constitutional Court ruling.
Faced with strong opposition from judges and anti-Islamists, he was obliged to back down three days later. The question now is how long the hidden conflict between the two institutions will continue.