Mixed reactions on Egypt's new justice minister El-Zend

Mariam Rizk , Wednesday 20 May 2015

El-Zend, who replaces a minister dismissed over classist comments, also has a record of controversial remarks and stances

Egypt's Justice Minister Ahmed El-Zend (Photo: Ahram)

Days after Egypt's former justice minister was removed because of classist comments, a new official was appointed only to create further controversy.

On Wednesday, the head of Egypt’s Judges Club, Ahmed El-Zend, was appointed to replace Mafhouz Saber, who resigned after making remarks deemed provocative about the social status of potential judges.

"A judge should come from a social class suited to the job, with all due respect to garbage collectors," he said during a television interview, as if to hint the son of a garbage collector shouldn't ever be appointed a judge.

A day later Saber submitted his resignation amid a wave of public outrage.

Minister of Transitional Justice Ibrahim El-Heneidy then took charge of the ministry until El-Zend's appointment Wednesday.

But hours after the news of the cabinet reshuffle, criticism of El-Zend's appointment had already surfaced.

El-Zend, who won two consecutive rounds of elections to head the unofficial but powerful Judges Club since 2009, has been associated with contentious stances and comments himself.

In March 2012, he was quoted as saying that "Whoever asks for cleansing the judiciary should go cleanse himself."

During an event at the Judges Club, El-Zend tackled an issue at the time when workers in courts held a strike to object to the employment of the sons of judges in place of other more qualified candidates, shutting down some courtrooms with chains.

"Those who criticise the sons of judges are haters whose appointment was rejected," El-Zend was quoted as saying. "The hiring of sons of judges will continue year after year and no power in Egypt will stop this holy crawl."

In January 2014, he said that judges "are masters on this land (Egypt) and everyone else are slaves," during a phone interview with the private television channel El-Faraeen.

During the Muslim Brotherhood's one year of power, El-Zend was at the forefront of the conflict between the Islamists' rule and judges.

The series of conflicts included a clash over proposed changes to the judicial powers law, which suggested reducing the age of retirement from 70 to 60, effectively forcing a quarter of Egypt's 13,000 serving judges into early retirement.

The amendments were not passed.

In December 2012, he announced that Egyptian judges would not be on hand to supervise a constitutional referendum for a charter drafted by an Islamist-dominated constituent assembly under the rule of Mohamed Morsi.

Some were welcoming of El-Zend's appointment, however. Egyptian news website Al-Youm Al-Sabea profiled El-Zend as one of the main opponents to the Muslim Brotherhood, who were ousted from power after mass protests against Brotherhood president Morsi in 2013.

Yehia Qadri, deputy head of the Egyptian National Movement Party founded by Mubarak-era prime minister and former presidential candidate Ahmed Shafiq told Ahram Online he believes El-Zend's selection for the post is the right one.

"The controversy is normal due to El-Zend's position as the head of the Judges Club who has antagonised some and appeased others," Qadri said.

"Sincere congratulations from the heart to his Excellency Judge Ahmed El-Zend , the new minister of justice," said former MP Mohamed Abu Hamed on his official Twitter account, wishing El-Zend the best of luck in his new post.

Commenting on the appointment, head of the Socialist Popular Alliance Party Abdel-Ghaffar Shoukr said he thought it was better to choose a judge who is not involved in disagreements inside the community of judges.

These clashes, he said, might reflect on his performance and the effectiveness of his leadership.

The appointment comes in the continued absence of an elected parliament since 2012, a condition that does not leave a mechanism open to hold officials accountable.

"There is no parliament, no one is holding ministers accountable, the [public] is not counseled on any decision," the secretary general of the Egyptian Social Demoncratic Party, Ahmed Fawzy, said.

"We do not even know on which criteria [El-Zend] was chosen and what is his proposed programme for the ministry, to be able to ask him about it."

With the absence of people's representatives, the media can act like the weapon of public opinion, spokesman of the Free Egyptians Party Shehab Wageeh said.

"The media has managed to remove a minister from his post (Saber) after he provoked the public with his comments," and thus it can continue to do the same, he said.

The appointment also comes as the judiciary in Egypt faces international criticism over recent mass death sentences and claims of insufficient due process, criticisms authorities have regularly brushed off.

Putting El-Zend in the justice ministry, rights lawyer Negad El-Borai said, reflects an absence of real intention to reform the judiciary, especially the appointments of judges.

"Both are in favour of inheritance of judicial posts, which is against the law," El-Borai said. 

Social media users also expressed criticism of El-Zend's appointment, making the Arabic hashtag of his name trend on Twitter.

"Doesn't the president know that El-Zend is against the son of garbage collectors more than the previous justice minister? Or are you keeping it a surprise?" one user wrote.

Other posts referred to his controversial comments, saying he's being rewarded for them.

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