Al-Ahram Weekly Online   18 - 24 October 2012
Issue No. 1119
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Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Two Fridays and beyond

As Egypt's problematic democratic transition stumbles forward the judiciary has emerged as a proxy battleground for the fight between Islamists and their opponents, writes Amira Howeidy

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NEW WAVE OF POLARISATION: Various political parties and movements are calling for a mass demonstration tomorrow called "Egypt is not a fiefdom, it's for all Egyptians" to demand social justice and a constitution that represents all Egyptians.The plan, as declared by activists, is to march from different districts in Cairo to Tahrir Square.Whether the planned demonstration will turn bloody is anybody's guess. Last Friday, demonstrations in Tahrir, the iconic site of the 25 January Revolution, were violent. The protests were initially called for by non-Islamist forces. Apart from calls to dissolve the Constituent Assembly which is drawing up the constitution, the demonstrators protested against what they say is President Mohamed Morsi's failure to deliver on his promises during his first 100 days in office. With members of the Muslim Brotherhood joining the event -- ostensibly in protest at the acquittal of figures being tried for the Battle of the Camel attack on protesters in February 2011 -- the demonstration quickly devolved into a stone and Molotov cocktail battle. In plain sight was the painful irony: the clash evoked the Battle of the Camel itself, with members and affiliates of the Brotherhood standing in for the thug militias of the Mubarak regime.

Tomorrow secular forces will protest in Tahrir Square for the second week in a row. This Friday, as last, it is the Muslim Brotherhood and President Mohamed Morsi they are protesting against. Several political parties and groups plan to mobilise against the Constituent Assembly which is drafting Egypt's new constitution, demand "social justice" and the retrial of defendants acquitted of killing protesters during the 18-day uprising that led to the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, and all under the slogan "Egypt is not a fiefdom, it's for all Egyptians".

They will also demand that the authorities open an investigation into the Muslim Brotherhood's decision to harass last Friday's protest by organising a competing demonstration, also in Tahrir Square. The result was a day of rock throwing that left hundreds injured.

The clashes were symptomatic of the hostility that's been brewing between the two camps since March 2011 when they clashed over the shape and direction of Egypt's transition during the referendum on constitutional amendments. The Islamist-secular polarisation that then emerged continues to characterise Egypt's political map. At first the bickering remained confined to the political arena, where the balance of power was tilted in the Islamists' favour. Indeed the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), then Egypt's de facto ruler, played a significant role in directing -- at times instigating -- these political battles and the ways in which they were resolved.

Now, though, it is the judiciary that is increasingly occupying centre stage. Reeling from decades of executive interference and as mired in corruption as any other part of the Mubarak-era state, the judiciary is issuing court rulings that have completely changed the direction of the transition, and which continue to do so.

In April a court dissolved the Constituent Assembly. In June the Supreme Constitutional Court recommended the dissolution of the Islamist-dominated People's Assembly five months after its election, on the grounds that the election law was unconstitutional. Egypt has remained without a parliament since. SCAF granted itself legislative powers which were then assumed by Morsi when, as president, he sacked the army generals and assumed the prerogatives they had granted themselves.

Both cases -- like dozens of others pending before courts -- were filed by the Muslim Brotherhood's political opponents.

"The judiciary has become a mechanism for those who didn't make electoral or political gains," said a senior judge who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly on condition of anonymity.

On Tuesday the Administrative Court said it would issue a verdict on 23 October in yet another case demanding the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly. The assembly was re-formed in June after political forces agreed that Islamists and secularists should each select half of its members in order to create a more balanced political representation. Now the two camps are bogged down in disagreements and many are pinning their hopes on a verdict next week dissolving the assembly altogether. Quite what will happen if the Constituent Assembly is dissolved, however, is unclear. The president, under the powers he assumed from SCAF, has the authority to form yet another assembly and he is unlikely to depart far from the current composition.

Political-legal entanglements took a serious turn when Morsi attempted to remove 66-year-old Prosecutor-General Abdel-Meguid Mahmoud on 10 October. The president, who does not have the authority to dismiss the prosecutor-general, announced that Mahmoud had been appointed as ambassador to the Vatican. Mahmoud, who can stay in his post until he is 70 unless he decides to resign, refused the offer.

Mahmoud has been a controversial figure since his appointment as prosecutor-general by Mubarak in 2006. Accused of turning a blind eye to corruption and human rights violations, his dismissal has been a constant demand since the revolution began. Calls for him to be replaced have grown louder with each acquittal of Mubarak-era officials charged with orchestrating the killing of more than 1,000 peaceful protesters in the course of the uprising that led to Mubarak's ouster. Courts have consistently failed to convict Mubarak's henchmen on the grounds that the evidence provided by the prosecution has been insufficient for a guilty verdict.

When a court acquitted all the defendants accused of planning the notorious Battle of the Camel attack on protesters Morsi attempted to contain public outrage by leaking news that Mahmoud had left his job. Although this was the very demand voiced by political forces critical of the 10 October acquittals within 24 hours some had negotiated a U-turn and began attacking Morsi for compromising the independence of the judiciary. President Morsi should not be removing the prosecutor-general because it opens the door to further executive interventions in the judiciary, they said.

As if on cue the judiciary -- including both the pro-Mubarak head of the Judges Club Ahmed Al-Zend and even Mahmoud's critics -- jumped to Mahmoud's defence. A defiant Mahmoud stated publicly that he would not quit and Morsi was forced to retract his decision.

Mahmoud had managed to remain in post thanks to the support of an unlikely group of bedfellows -- anti-Brotherhood revolutionary forces, pro-Mubarak figures and remnants of the former regime.

It didn't help that this happened as Muslim Brotherhood protesters were harassing Morsi's critics at last Friday's demonstration. As Morsi attempted to win political capital by removing the unpopular prosecutor-general, his own party's miscalculations contributed to a backlash that diminished his political standing, leaving him open to accusations of impulsiveness, weakness and keeping incompetent advisors.

Five days later the crisis appears to have cooled. A few Brotherhood leaders have publicly admitted they made a mistake by demonstrating last Friday when Morsi's critics had already scheduled their own protest. The judiciary appears to be back to business as normal. But as Cairo University political science professor Hassan Nafaa argues, the situation remains explosive. In the absence of serious measures fostering reconciliation between the Brotherhood and other political forces the crisis, he says, could descend into "chaos" and possibly lead to a military coup.

Such talk might seem melodramatic but political developments are becoming more unpredictable. Several anti-revolution and pro-Mubarak figures seized the opportunity to jump on the protect-judicial-independence-from-the-Brotherhood bandwagon. Mubarak's last prime minister and ex-presidential candidate Ahmed Shafik is an example of the way political tables are turning. Fleeing Egypt following his defeat in the elections Shafik faces numerous corruption charges, yet he addressed "the nation" in a YouTube video backing the same demands as the secular forces that clashed with the Brotherhood last week and that will be protesting tomorrow.

Revolution derailed? Al-Shorouk newspaper columnist Wael Kandil seems to think so. It's "both surreal and dangerous" how Shafik's discourse is now identical to that of the supposedly revolutionary symbols, he wrote on Tuesday.

"The revolution will be the loser."

(see Egypt & Editorial)

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