The decision by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's government to try two senior judges for blowing the whistle on vote rigging in last autumn's parliamentary elections has rocked the country, writes Saad Eddin Ibrahim
Mubarak's government now seems to be backtracking as fast as it can. Judge Mahmoud Mekki has been acquitted, and Judge Hisham al-Bastawisy, who suffered a heart attack the night before, has merely been reprimanded. Yet Cairo remains restless, and the government fears another outpouring of support for democracy, as the judges have called for renewed nationwide demonstrations.
Egyptian judges have a long-standing tradition of discretion and propriety. But they feel abused by government efforts to sugarcoat the manipulation of election after election by claiming that judges supervise the voting. What makes their struggle loom so large for a normally quiescent Egyptian public is partly that nearly all 9,000 judges are standing fast in solidarity.
A new law to restore judicial independence
Their representative body, the Judges' Club, has long pushed for a new law to restore judicial independence. Now the judges are insisting on their independence by themselves.
The Mubarak regime is adamantly opposed, and resorts to extra-judicial means, such as emergency courts and national security and military courts, which do not observe international standards. Contrary to his campaign promises during his run for a fifth term as President, Mubarak has requested (and his rubber-stamp parliament has granted) a two-year extension of the Emergency Law by which Egypt has been ruled throughout his presidency.
It is to this law, above all, that the judges and Egypt's civil society object. The Emergency Law has been in force since the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in October 1981, and Mubarak claims that he needs another extension to combat terrorism.
But, according to a recent human rights report, despite the Emergency Law, 89 people were killed and 236 wounded in terrorist attacks in Egypt during the previous 12 months. In neighboring Israel, which is still in a struggle with the Palestinians, only 18 were killed and 25 wounded in similar attacks during the same period. Yet Israelis do not live under an emergency law.
Consider, moreover, that at the height of the Arab-Israeli conflict in 1973, Egypt's armed forces stood at one million troops. Now only 350,000 serve in the military, while the internal security police recently hit the one-million mark.
Black-uniformed security forces in the heart of Cairo
Mubarak's first internal war was with Islamic militants during his early years in power, but he now finds himself caught in three more domestic wars. The battle with the judges has incited enough popular unrest to warrant Mubarak's deployment of thousands of black-uniformed central security forces in the heart of Cairo. This deployment, lasting three weeks so far, is already longer than the combined duration of the last two wars with Israel.
Another domestic war, with the Egyptian Bedouins of Sinai, broke out two years ago. Taking their cue from their Palestinian neighbors, if not from al-Qaeda, alienated young Bedouins apparently decided to rebel against their treatment as third-class citizens.
All around them, but especially in the ebullient resorts of southern Sinai, billions are spent on roads, airports, and beaches; sizeable parcels of land are allocated generously to rich Egyptians from the Nile Valley and to foreigners, but not to Sinai natives.
Lethargic, corrupt bureaucracy
Indeed, Sinai Bedouins have the right of use but not ownership of land, because a lethargic, occasionally corrupt bureaucracy still deems the Sinai a military zone and its natives' loyalty questionable.
Two years ago, on the anniversary of the war of October 1973, young Sinai militants bombed the Taba Hilton. Last July, on another national holiday, they hit three tourist spots not far from the Mubarak family compound in Sharm el-Sheikh. These symbolic as well as lethal warnings to a family that has grown Pharaonic in scale, style, and power have gone unheeded.
Disrespect for citizens' legal equality
The third recent domestic war, this one over Christian Coptic citizenship rights, has been brewing for years. Copts are the original Egyptians, and they were the majority population until the tenth century. As Egypt was Arabized and Islamized, the Copts became a minority in their original homeland.
In Mubarak's Egypt, citizens' legal equality, while stipulated in the constitution, is not respected or observed, especially with regard to the construction and protection of Coptic churches. Last November, when Muslim zealots attacked a Coptic church in Alexandria, several Copts were injured.
Six months later, a fanatic targeted three churches during Sunday services, killing a few worshippers and injuring many. Copts marched in the streets of Alexandria for the next three days, protesting the security authorities' leniency toward the culprits, the scapegoating of their community, or even an official hand in the attacks to justify an extension of the Emergency Law.
Hosni Mubaraks' four domestic wars are fuelled by Egypt's excluded, who are increasingly in rebellion against a regime that has long outlived its legitimate mandate. The battle with the judges may well prove to be Mubarak's Achilles' heel. Justice is a central value for Egyptians, and its absence is at the core of all protests. There can be no evidence more compelling than the unprecedented numbers of people who have rallied peacefully in solidarity with the judges.
Saad Eddin Ibrahim
© Project Syndicate 2006
Saad Eddin Ibrahim is Professor of Political Sociology at the American University in Cairo and Chairman of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies.