The Egyptian people are rightfully demanding that former regime officials responsible for corruption, violence against protesters, and other crimes and malfeasance be held legally accountable. Egypt’s prosecutor general has responded, unsatisfactorily, with improvised justice.
In some cases, he has failed or has been too slow to bring legal action. In others, he has prosecuted complex cases with the quickness of show trials.
Too frequently, his office has politicised the legal process by announcing prosecutorial action shortly before or after planned mass protests, to allay public outrage. The most recent example of this came last Sunday, when the prosecutor general announced that prosecutions were continuing against former police officers, the former president, and the former interior minister.
Conveniently, Sunday’s announcement came hot on the heels of mass demonstrations on Friday reasserting public demands for justice.
All of this raises legitimate doubts about the integrity of the prosecutorial process and undermines the rule of law.
Egypt’s prosecutor general is in an extremely difficult position. He is caught between the public’s impassioned demands for immediate justice and the backstairs manoeuvring by loyalists of the former regime to delay or deny prosecutions. Like most, if not all prosecutors in the world, he is susceptible to political pressure.
But by allowing politics to pervade the prosecutorial agenda, the prosecutor general inadvertently perpetuates the very corruption that his office requires him to redress. He should neither be an agent of mob justice nor a tool of powerful forces working to derail the legal process.
The centrality of the prosecutor general’s role in Egypt’s legal system requires him to pursue accountability for past wrongs in a manner that sets the stage for a just future.
Egypt’s prosecutor general must wrest control of the prosecutorial process from the streets and back-alley deal-makers. By word and deed, he must make it clear to all parties that prosecutions will be pursued vigorously, within the limits of the law, on the strength of evidence, and with due consideration for procedural fairness, prosecutorial integrity, and transparency.
His office must educate the public about the legal process and the powers and limitations of his office. As justice requires, he should expose efforts of current or former government officials and other power brokers to improperly influence the legal process. Above all, the prosecutor general must be steadfast in his fidelity to the rule of law, despite the short-term political consequences.
By engaging transparently and proactively with the public, the prosecutor general might win the public confidence and patience that he desperately needs to do his job. Public engagement might also thwart future attempts by shadowy elements to undermine the legal process.
Undoubtedly, the integrity of Egypt’s legal system has been compromised by its politicisation in recent years. But its foundations are deeply-rooted and strong.
Egypt’s legal system developed over millennia and has adapted through war, quasi-colonisation, monarchy, and revolution. Its strength and influence are evident beyond its borders. The civil laws of a number of Arab countries were modelled on the Egyptian civil code.
In the international arena, Egypt has been a leader in using legal means to achieve important ends, including as an original member of the United Nations, a founding member of the African Union (formerly the OAU), and as an early ratifier of treaties that promote international legal order, such as the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties.
Egyptians know from recent experience that a legal system contaminated by politics is incapable of guaranteeing the dignity of the people. At this fragile yet promising juncture in Egypt’s history, the legal system must operate at the highest levels of stability and integrity. The substitution of the rule of one man with the rule of many is not a cure for injustice. It is an optical illusion.
Now is the time to cleanse Egypt’s legal system of politics, starting with the office of the prosecutor general. The prosecutor general must advance the rule of law.
The writer is an Egyptian-American lawyer and a founding member of the Egyptian American Rule of Law Association .