News / Middle East

Egypt High Court Seen as Key Arbiter in Country’s Future

Egypt's Supreme Court buildingEgypt's Supreme Court building
x
Egypt's Supreme Court building
Egypt's Supreme Court building
Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court is emerging as the potential kingmaker and powerful arbiter in the future of Egyptian politics as the country prepares for a heated presidential runoff election.

The court must untangle a web of laws that could steer the country in two radically different directions. Its decisions could turn Egypt over to an ally of former strongman Hosni Mubarak or the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement suspected of being as authoritarian internally as the Mubarak regime once was. Emotions and pressure tactics are running high on all sides. How they will affect the justices remains to be seen.

On June 14, just two days before Egyptians go to the polls for a second time in a month, the Supreme Court will begin considering whether Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak’s last prime minister and one of the two finalists in the election, should be able to run at all. The court will be weighing the constitutionality of the so-called “political law of isolation,” passed by the new Islamist-dominated parliament, which bans former senior Mubarak allies from participating in politics for the next five years.

The court also will begin hearing a complaint about the constitutionality of the Law of Parliamentary Elections issued by the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), which allowed members of political parties to run for seats normally reserved for independent candidates. 

George Washington University Professor Nathan Brown, who is a leading expert on Egypt’s judicial system, says the court's motions will have huge consequences.

“This is the time at which Egypt’s permanent governing structures will be formed. So, the decisions that will be made now will determine the rules of Egyptian politics for some time to come,” Brown said.

This is not the first time the court has considered the legality of a parliamentary election, according to Clark Lombardi, an associate law professor at the University of Washington.

“After contested elections under Mubarak, the court issued a ruling saying the parliament was elected in an unconstitutional way, forcing Mubarak to dissolve parliament. The legal precedent is quite clear,” he said.

Loose laws

Despite that precedent, the Supreme Constitutional Court still faces a tough decision because Egypt's laws are changing as fast as its political landscape.

“It’s very hard to talk about the role of law because law is not a stable, autonomous independent thing. It is moving, too,” said Kristen Stilt, a law professor at Northwestern University in Illinois.

Mubarak operated under the 1971 Constitution, which was suspended after his resignation amid a popular uprising last year. In its place, the SCAF announced a constitutional declaration – in effect an interim constitution – that combined remnants of the '71 document with new articles adopted in a public referendum. The SCAF also announced a new law to govern Egypt's first post-revolutionary parliamentary election, but changed it under pressure from political parties.

The new parliament, tasked primarily with creating an assembly to write a new constitution, instead focused on who could be president and passed the “isolation law,” which technically bars ex-regime members from running in the election. That law was then apparently ignored by the presidential election committee, presided over by Supreme Court Chief Justice, Farouk Sultan.

Symbol of independence

In a country where most institutions have been known to bend to the will of authority, the Supreme Constitutional Court served for years in the 1970s and 1980s as a rare and powerful symbol of independence. Egypt's leaders allowed that independence for political purposes, but the court took advantage of its strength to hold the government accountable, according to Lombardi.

"The court clearly took it upon itself to establish itself as a party with whom one had to negotiate,” he said.

The Supreme Court today is a shadow of its former self, however. In the 1990s, Mubarak's government implemented a so-called "court packing" plan, adding judges to the bench to dilute the power of the independent, liberalizing forces.

With Mubarak gone, and an opportunity to decide what Egypt should look like, the judges likely will want to exert their own will, and not someone else's, said Brown.

"So you’ve got a very strong commitment of Egypt’s judges to what they would see is to protect the rule of law during this threatening time,” he said.

That doesn't mean the court is immune to outside influence. Some judges are advising the SCAF, and the chief justice served in military courts and is still considered close to the armed forces. The Muslim Brotherhood-dominated parliament also recently proposed a law that would stem the justices' ability to overturn legislation, a move Brown said was considered a warning to the court not to dissolve parliament.

Forecasting uncertainty

Egypt's airwaves and newspapers are full of debate by pundits and politicians about which way the court will lean, and how that will affect the political transition. With the Presidential Election Committee headed by Chief Justice Sultan, some say the Supreme Constitutional Court likely will overturn the “political isolation law” ignored by the election committee. That would clear the way for Shafiq in the runoff.

Also, if the court deems members of parliament to have been elected under unlawful rules, Stilt said it could order another complete or partial parliamentary election, which would stall the adoption of a new constitution.
 
In the meantime, the SCAF has called for parliament to meet on June 12 to elect a 100-member committee to draft that constitution. If they fail to reach a consensus, the SCAF could issue yet another constitutional declaration.

Egypt has tied itself into what Brown called a "legal pretzel." In the short-term, that means there are no real legitimate structures in a country in transition. But in the long-term, Brown said, untying that pretzel could lead to some healthy trends.

"This is now a country where no single political force can dominate. And that is coming to terms [with the fact] that you have a pluralist political environment, where various political forces are assertive. That’s a healthy, contentious basis for democratic politics," he said, adding that reducing the military’s influence will be critical to that process.

Do you think Egypt's Supreme Court will be the political kingmaker? Share your comments and take our poll.

You May Like

How to Safeguard Your Mobile Privacy

As the digital world becomes more mobile, so too do concerns about eroding privacy and increased hacking More

'Desert Dancer' Chronicles Iranian Underground Dance Troupe

Film by Richard Raymond is based on true story of Afshin Ghaffarian and his friends More

Obesity Poses Complex Problem

Professor warns of obesity’s worldwide health impact More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Rolling Thunder Run Reveals Changed Attitudes Towards Vietnam Wari
X
Katherine Gypson
May 25, 2015 1:32 AM
For many US war veterans, the Memorial Day holiday is an opportunity to look back at a divisive conflict in the nation’s history and to remember those who did not make it home.
Video

Video Rolling Thunder Run Reveals Changed Attitudes Towards Vietnam War

For many US war veterans, the Memorial Day holiday is an opportunity to look back at a divisive conflict in the nation’s history and to remember those who did not make it home.
Video

Video Female American Soldiers: Healing Through Filmmaking

According to the United States Defense Department, there are more than 200-thousand women serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.  Like their male counterparts, females have experiences that can be very traumatic.  VOA's Bernard Shusman tells us about a program that is helping some American women in the military heal through filmmaking.
Video

Video Iowa Family's Sacrifice Shaped US Military Service for Generations

Few places in America have experienced war like Waterloo. This small town in the Midwest state of Iowa became famous during World War II not for what it accomplished, but what it lost. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, the legacy of one family’s sacrifice is still a reminder today of the real cost of war for all families on the homefront.
Video

Video On Film: How Dance Defies Iran's Political Oppression

'Desert Dancer' by filmmaker Richard Raymond is based on the true story of a group of young Iranians, who form an underground dance troupe in the Islamic Republic of Iran. This is the latest in a genre of films that focus on dance as a form of freedom of expression against political oppression and social injustice. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Turkey's Ruling Party Trying to Lure Voters in Opposition Stronghold

Turkey’s AK (Justice and Development) Party is seeking a fourth successive general election victory, with the goal of securing two-thirds of the seats in Parliament to rewrite the constitution and change the country's parliamentary system into a presidential one. To achieve that, the party will need to win seats in opposition strongholds like the western city of Izmir. Dorian Jones reports.
Video

Video Millions Flock to Ethiopia Polls

Millions of Ethiopians cast their votes Sunday in the first national election since the 2012 death of longtime leader Meles Zenawi. Mr. Meles' party, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, is almost certain of victory again. VOA's Anita Powell reports from Addis Ababa.
Video

Video Scientists Testing Space Propulsion by Light

Can the sun - the heart of our solar system - power a spacecraft to the edge of our solar system? The answer may come from a just-launched small satellite designed to test the efficiency of solar sail propulsion. Once deployed, its large sail will catch the so-called solar wind and slowly reach what scientists hope to be substantial speed. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video FIFA Trains Somali Referees

As stability returns to the once lawless nation of Somalia, the world football governing body, FIFA, is helping to rebuild the country’s sport sector by training referees as well as its young footballers. Abdulaziz Billow has more from Mogadishu.
Video

Video With US Child Obesity Rates on the Rise, Program Promotes Health Eating

In its fifth year, FoodCorps puts more than 180 young Americans into 500 schools across the United States, where they focus on teaching students about nutrition, engaging them with hands-on activities, and improving their access to healthy foods whether in the cafeteria or the greater community. Aru Pande has more.
Video

Video Virginia Neighborhood Draws People to Nostalgic Main Street

In the U.S., people used to grow up in small towns with a main street lined by family-owned shops and restaurants. Today, however, many main streets are worn down and empty because shoppers have been lured away by shopping malls. But in the Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria, Virginia, main street is thriving. VOA’s Deborah Block reports it has a nostalgic feel with its small restaurants and unique stores.

VOA Blogs