Scores of judges converged outside Egypt's High Court in downtown Cairo on Monday evening to demonstrate against proposed amendments to a judicial authority bill intially tabled by Islamist parliamentarians in April.
The demonstration, organised by the Egyptian Judges Club – which represents over 90 percent of the nation's judges – came in the wake of a strike launched by judicial officials last week to protest parliament's insistence on discussing the proposed legislation.
Proposed amendments to the law would see the retirement age of judges reduced from 70 to 60, effectively pensioning off about one quarter of Egypt's roughly 13,000 serving judges.
Many judges believe the proposed changes to the law are intended as a form of "payback" by the Muslim Brotherhood – which currently enjoys a parliamentary majority – against judges who had jailed many of the group's members during the Mubarak era.
They also believe the proposed amendments will give the Islamist group a chance to stock Egypt's judiciary with Brotherhood loyalists.
Supporters of the bill say the retirement age for judges had originally been 60, but was raised several times by Egypt's pre-revolution parliament in order to maintain judges loyal to ousted president Hosni Mubarak in their posts.
Proponents and opponents of the bill held compteting rallies on several occasions in Cairo's downtown district within recent months.
Outside the court on Monday, hundreds of other demonstrators gathered to support protesting judges, raising banners expressing their solidarity and warning against attempts to 'Brotherhoodise' Egypt's judiciary.
Controversial television presenter Tawfiq Okasha, long considered a Mubarak supporter, made an appearance at Monday's demonstration, where he received a warm welcome from the crowd.
The judges, who were cordoned off from supporters by a small detachment of police at the High Court's gate, stood for one hour as Egyptian Judges Club head Ahmed El-Zend defiantly announced that Egypt's people and judges would "stand together" against any "attack" on the country's judicial system.
El-Zend, speaking at a Judges Club conference shortly afterward, asserted that none of them – in reference to the Muslim Brotherhood – "will set foot" in Egypt's judiciary, which he went on to describe as "sacred."
Judges insist that the proposed judicial authority law should be drawn up by – or in tandem with – serving judicial officials. Former Justice Minister Ahmed Mekki, who had been close to the Brotherhood, resigned in April against the backdrop of the ongoing political deadlock over the fate of the judiciary.
Salah El-Shahed, member of the board of the Judges Club, told Ahram Online that "further steps" would be taken – without elaborating – if the Shura Council (the upper house of Egypt's parliament, currently endowed with legislative power) persisted in passing the amendments.
HCC takes on Shura Council
In a related development on Sunday, Egypt's High Constitutional Court (HCC) ruled that the laws that governed Shura Council elections were unconstitutional.
It stated, however, that the council would not be dissolved until the election of a new House of Representatives (the lower, legislative house of Egypt's parliament, formerly known as the People's Assembly).
The Shura Council has held legislative authority since the dissolution of the People's Assembly in June 2012 by Egypt's then-ruling Supreme Military Council, based on a recommendation by the HCC.
El-Shahed believes that Sunday's verdict, although stipulating that the Shura Council remain temporarily in session, should prompt deputies to shelve proposed amendments to the judicial authority law.
"The court ruling clearly spells out the illegitimacy of the Shura Council and undermines it," El-Shahed told Ahram Online. "Despite the fact that the council would continue to legislate, it shouldn't come near such momentous legislation in the wake of this verdict."
The ongoing political standoff between Egypt's presidency and judiciary began in earnest last November, when President Mohamed Morsi issued a decree sacking Mubarak-era prosecutor-general Abdel-Maguid Mahmoud and appointing Judge Talaat Abdullah in his place.
The move prompted uproar among opposition forces, with a number of judges accusing President Morsi of infringing on judicial independence. According to Egyptian law, they argued, Egypt's Supreme Judicial Council represented the only entity with the right to appoint a new prosecutor-general.