CAIRO: Two judges accused of exposing alleged occurrences of vote rigging by other magistrates during last year’s parliamentary elections are due back in court today. A disciplinary hearing will be held for Hisham Al-Bastawisy and Mahmoud Mekki, both of whom were stripped of their judicial immunity after sounding the whistle on elections they say were marred by fraud. Meanwhile, members of the Judges’ Club tell Reuters they may go on strike should the committee decide to remove from the bench Bastawisy or Mekki. The court date is expected to rile up demonstrators in support of the judges in question. When President Hosni Mubarak pushed for the amendment to Article 76 of the constitution calling for multi-candidate elections, the judges were presented with an integral role as they would ensure the legitimacy of the vote – but there was a snag. The Judges’ Club, which represents more than 8,000 judges in Egypt, threatened to boycott the election. For years, the nation’s judiciary has called for complete independence from the executive branch. Absence of the judges could present a violation to the constitution as judicial supervision is required for any election.
On September 2, 2005, just 5 days before last year’s historic presidential vote, the judiciary cut a deal with the government and agreed to supervise the election. Experts say a major factor in persuading them to agree was the establishment of the Electoral Commission, which serves as a mediator between the executive and judicial branches.
Parliamentary elections, which have been held in three phases since 2000 to ensure judicial supervision at all polling stations, would reveal shortcomings in the government’s sincerity to reform, say Egyptian oppositionists. A number of electoral monitoring groups spoke of rampant irregularities at polling stations across the country, though violence overshadowed much of the headlines in the second and third phases of voting.
The Judges’ Club is still awaiting a resolution to their ongoing battle for greater independent authority, and the recent arrest of Bastawisy and Mekki has reawakened calls for the government to investigate incidents of fraud, and not the judges.
“Don’t shoot the messenger, says Fadi Al-Qadi, a spokesman for the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch. “Obviously, the Egyptian government has not done an investigation into the numerous claims of fraud as well as violence and other disturbing facts within that process. Instead of doing a transparent investigation, it is arresting these judges because they told the public what they should know.
The incidents date back to a testimony by Noha El-Zeini, a deputy chairwoman at the Administrative Prosecution Authority. In a statement published in Al-Masry Al-Youm, El-Zeini alleged that the results of elections in the Damanhour constituency of Al-Bandar were slanted in favor of prominent National Democratic Party (NDP) candidate Moustafa El-Feki. Rumors immediately circulated about El-Zeini’s connection to the banned Muslim Brotherhood who by then had already made substantial gains in the elections.
El-Zeini’s testimony would create an avalanche – the heads of 137 of the 160 polling stations in the same constituency confirmed her claims to be true. Deputy Chief Justice of the Court of Cassation Mahmoud Mekki called the elections “a farce, in which judges acted as extras. His comments would spark a rebellion by the Judges’ Club, one which would by met by an increasingly common security resistance by the government.
“Some judges are pure and they are looking for reform in the political arena, but they don’t know how, says Mohammed Said Al-Ashmawy, a retired judge and author on legal affairs. “They were mad at the forgery of the elections in the name of the magistrate. They were shocked that the government forged the election by force to have two-thirds of the seats in parliament because now this will give him the right legally to pass any law.
Late last year, the Judges’ Club released a report with blaring accusations of fraud during the May 25th referendum, and later during the presidential election. A new report is due out citing acts of misconduct during the three-phase parliamentary elections. The fact remains that the judges are numerous, influential and well organized. Some experts believe that despite efforts by the opposition to strike at the government, an uprising by the judges might hit it where it hurts.
“There is no one thing that will bring about reform in this country, notes Nasser Amin, head of the Arab Center for the Independence of the Judiciary. “But by granting the judges their independence and their rights, this is one step toward achieving reform in this country as it will lift a tremendous pressure that is currently really suffocating this country.