Islamist MPs in the Shura Council's legislative and constitutional affairs committee on Wednesday green-lit potential amendments to the controversial judicial authority law (no.46/1972).
According to Mohamed Touson, chairman of the committee and a leading official of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), as many as 13 MPs voted in favour of the amendments in principle, while 10 others objected.
Independent and liberal-minded MPs charged that "the count was not correct and that Islamist MPs were in an extreme hurry to announce that the amendments were approved."
Touson indicated that "after the approval in principle of the proposed amendments, they will be referred to the [Shura] Council to discuss them – also in principle only – in a plenary session."
Touson indicated that the proposed amendments were submitted by Taher Abdel-Mohsen, deputy chairman of the legislative and constitutional affairs committee and a leading FJP official, two other Islamist MPs representing the Islamist-oriented Wasat Party, and the Building and Development Party, the political arm of the ultra-conservative Al-Gamaa Al-Islamyia.
According to Touson, the FJP's amendment of the judicial authority law focuses on cutting the age of retirement for judges from 70 to 60, a measure that has been strongly criticised by many judges.
Touson also indicated that the amendments submitted by the three Islamist-oriented political parties aim to make sure that the selection of the prosecutor-general is in line with the newly-promulgated constitution; that members of all judicial authorities are on equal footing in terms of salaries and financial incentives; and that the Supreme Judicial Council assumes full control of setting the criterion for appointing judges in terms of efficiency and qualifications and regulating the full and part-time employment of some judges by certain government authorities.
The approval of the Islamist-dominated Shura Council's legislative and constitutional affairs committee came in spite of the refusal of the government and the Interior Ministry to attend the meeting.
Omar El-Sherif, deputy justice minister and the government's representative, told chairman of the Shura Council Ahmed Fahmi on Monday that "upon the orders of Justice Minister Ahmed Mekki [who offered his resignation on Sunday, but has yet to either be accepted or rejected], I do not intend to attend any committee meetings designed to discuss proposed amendments to the judicial authority law."
El-Sherif indicated that "any amendments to the law cannot be discussed without the prior coordination with the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC), not to mention that Shura MPs are not entitled by Article 101 of the constitution to propose laws or legislative amendments of laws."
In reaction, FJP MPs sharply attacked the justice ministry. Sobhi Saleh, a member of the committee and a leading FJP official, said "the rejection of the government's representative to attend the committee's meeting on the judicial authority law cannot be accepted and the government's representative must be punished."
Tousoun urged members of the Supreme Judicial Council to submit amendments to the judicial authority law and for judges to stop "mixing judicial activities with politics." He asserted that "the amendments proposed by MPs are not aimed to strip the judiciary of independence and these amendments cannot be discussed at the absence of judicial authorities."
Essam El-Erian, FJP's parliamentary spokesman in the Shura Council, said the new constitution compels the Council to explore the viewpoints of the judicial authority ahead of discussing laws aimed at regulating this authority. "In this respect, the SJC is called on to give us its viewpoints on how to amend the judicial authority law, in line with the new constitution," he said.
Abdullah Badran, the representative of the Salafist Nour Party, begged to differ with El-Erian, arguing that "there is no pressing need to amend the judicial authority law."
"Egypt is passing through a critical time and we are not in need of laws aimed at complicating political matters," said Badran, adding that "the amendments to the judicial authority law must be left for the House of Representatives [the lower house of parliament which has yet to be elected] to discuss them in a climate of political consensus."
The parliament's lower house, the People's Assembly, was dismantled last year after the High Constitutional Court declared the law that regulated the last parliamentary elections unconstitutional. Legal experts argue that the Shura Council should be dissolved on the same grounds.
A new lower chamber of parliament is yet to be elected under the name the House of Representatives, which will hold legislative powers in place of the Shura Council once formed.
Nagi El-Shehabi, chairman of the secular Geel party, argued that "the new constitution granted the Shura Council temporary legislative powers to discuss laws of high necessity, notably those regulating the upcoming parliamentary elections."
"Aside from this, Shura Council must exercise extreme restraint in discussing any laws," said El-Shehabi.
Adel Morsi, an appointed Shura member and a former chairman of the military justice courts, said "the judicial authority is not in need of clean-up as some allege, and we have to listen to the views of judges before laws regulating their performance are passed."
On Tuesday evening, Islamist MPs opened fire on the independent club of judges, accusing its chairman Ahmed El-Zend of asking US President Barack Obama to intervene in the internal politics of Egypt.