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Judges vs lawyers: What is at stake?

The new draft Law of Judicial Authority was supposed to meet long sought after demands from the Mubarak era, but instead it sparked a grave crisis in Egypt between judges and lawyers

Zeinab El Gundy, Friday 4 Nov 2011
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Lawyers protest new judiciary law (Photo: Mohamed Nada)
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A new Law of Judicial Authority, which would ensure the independence of the judicial branch from the executive and has been long demanded by Egypt's judges, seemed one step closer to passage a few weeks ago.

After a long rivalry between the Judges’ Club, headed by Judge Ahmed El-Zend, and the reformist judges current, represented by Judge Ahmed Makky, judges were able to agree on a draft law.

But the draft law that judges proposed caused a deep crisis between judges and lawyers, and the long awaited legislation has stalled indefinitely.

Judges threatened not to monitor the vote in the upcoming parliamentary elections if the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and the government do not listen to their demands and issue the law.

Lawyers, for their part, are objecting in the new draft law mainly to Article 18. According to this article, judges have the right to imprison lawyers if they act improperly in court, and for up to five years.

Aside from considering this article insulting, lawyers say that it contradicts articles 49 and 54 of the Attorneys’ Law that give immunity to lawyers in court. The judges defend Article 18 and say that it already existed in the old judiciary law of 1968 in articles that gave judges the right to imprison lawyers if they disturb order in the courtroom.

Still, this article is not the only thing that makes lawyers angry in the new draft law.

There is also another article that assigns a quota to judges’ sons joining the judiciary and general prosecution in what lawyers called the "law of judiciary hereditary succession".

Lawyers subsequently protested the draft law, going on strike to close courts in several governorates, like in Bani Suwef and Tanta, and even fought with some judges.

The escalation of the lawyers’ protest led the Judges’ Club to take a daring decision and to suspend work in the courts to protest what the Judges’ Club referred to as “thuggery actions” by lawyers

The confrontation reached another level when some judges threatened to boycott the upcoming parliamentary elections.

The government had to interfere and tried to reconcile differences between judges and lawyers. Prime Minister Essam Sharaf held a series of meetings between the two parties in order to end the crisis before the elections.

On Tuesday, Sharaf held a joint meeting with representatives of lawyers and judges; the cabinet then announced that the judges and lawyers had reached an accord. The deal included securing courts with a special police force as well investigating the crisis between judges and lawyers, in order to know who was behind it and its cause.

The Cabinet also made it clear that the new draft law would not be issued until approved by a fully functioned parliament. Based on that meeting, judges will supervise the elections and the courts will return to work.

Nevertheless, in less than 24 hours, Judge Ahmed El-Zend, the chairman of the Judges’ Club issued a statement that no party or government has the right to cancel the decision by the general assembly of the Judges’ Club to suspend working in the courts unless the courts are truly secured. The Judges’ Club and El-Zend are adamant in their insistence on the passage of the new law.

But the chairman of the Supreme Council of the Judiciary, Hossam El-Ghariany, is more ready to compromise. El-Ghariany announced that controversial Article 18 could be omitted or cancelled, and that the law can wait until the next parliament.

On the lawyers' side, things are more complicated.

The current crisis comes at a time when the Lawyers’ Syndicate is preparing to hold elections for the first time after the January revolution, with strong competition between independent candidates like Mohamed Kamel and political party candidates like Monataser El-Ziyat, representing the Islamists, in the elections.

Some judges have already accused some lawyers who are standing as candidates for syndicate office of escalating the crisis in order to use it as propaganda in their election campaigns. Other judges even accused National Democratic Party remnant lawyers in the syndicate of fomenting the crisis to stir trouble in the country.

Responding to the judges' accusations, the general assembly of the Lawyers’ Syndicate issued a statement saying it is the sole representative of Lawyers’ Syndicate. The general assembly called on lawyers to return to work starting from 1 November, and demanded the judges purge the judiciary of those judges who participated in the parliamentary elections of 2010.

Until now it is unclear how the crisis will end, not to mention when.

The longer the fight between lawyers and judges goes on, it will not only affect the progress of parliamentary elections, but will also affect progress in the trials of symbols of the former regime — indeed, perhaps the duration of the transitional period itself.

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