Cairo // Ahmed al Zind believes the key reason he was elected president of Egypt's Judges' Club was to return the body to its stated goal of defending its advocates and the integrity of the judiciary and not advocating for political reform. "The club had lately started to mix the goals that I'm supposed to work for with some political issues that judges are prevented from indulging in or even approaching," said Mr al Zind.
Under the previous executive, judges from the club were often seen protesting on the street outside against the government of Hosni Mubarak while wearing their courtly robes. For Mr al Zind and the judges who support him, acting as a thorn in the side of Egypt's autocratic executive - which has ruled under emergency law for much of the past quarter century - has brought few political rewards and tarnished the judiciary's reputation for neutrality.
Yet in returning the Judges' Club to a professional advocacy organisation and a social club where Egypt's revered legal experts could talk shop over tea, Mr al Zind may risk subduing an institution that over the past several decades has emerged as one of the most vocal advocates for liberal reforms. "Many Egyptians complain that the fundamental structural problem in Egyptian political life is constitutional in nature - there is no meaningful accountability of the executive authority. I am inclined to be sympathetic to this view," said Nathan Brown, the director of the Middle East Studies programme at George Washington University in the United States. "The Judges Club under the old leadership decided to challenge this head on. I think that they failed in that challenge."
The conflict within the Judges Club between the "activist" camp, which envisions a political role for judges outside the courtroom, and the "quiescent" group, which Mr al Zind leads, has divided Egypt's judiciary for decades. Under the previous "activist" board, the judges in May 2005 threatened to boycott their constitutional responsibility to monitor national elections scheduled for autumn of that year unless the regime met their demands for electoral reform.
On their list of reforms was a proposal to amend the electoral law to give justices complete, as opposed to partial, control over the electoral process. This would mean authority over everything from the selection of candidates to the counting of votes to the administration of polling stations. Judges have always had authority to oversee national elections, but they were powerless to investigate or report on intimidation and electoral fraud that occurs outside the polling and counting places - the justices' only legal zones of jurisdiction.
The judges never boycotted the elections; their threat was never entirely serious because refusing their supervisory role would violate the constitution, said Bruce K Rutherford, an assistant professor of political science at Colgate University in his book Egypt After Mubarak. But their vocal stance against the government was an alarming development in a country in which the political leadership is rarely challenged openly.
Boycott or not, the activist board of the Judges Club that organised the 2005 movement was forced out in elections this year. But those judges continue to stand by their decision. "With regard to the supervision of elections, either this supervision should be real supervision without intervention from the government or the judges should just not supervise," said Hisham Ganeena, one of the justices who drafted the list of demands the club issued in 2005.
"When a judge is supervising but it is not a true supervision the people will no longer trust Egyptian judges. We said that and that's why the state got upset with us." But as far as Mr al Zind is concerned, his mandate now is to mend the damage done by the previous club's administration. The role of the club, he said, is to represent the judges' economic interests and defend them against direct attacks on their jurisdiction and integrity.
"My agenda is to open the legal channels with all the authorities, the executive and the legislative, because some of those channels were rendered inappropriate or blocked by the actions of the previous board," he said. "A judge is not required to take an attitude either for or against the government in the work of political parties. It's not the task of the club to take strong stands against anyone except if any state authority should act in a way that might constitute aggression against the judiciary or hurt its independence."
Such aggression, said Mr al Zind, has not yet occurred. But observers will watch closely to see whether his leadership will avoid confrontation with Mr Mubarak's executive - particularly in the parliamentary elections next year and the presidential elections in 2011. Mr Brown said the club under Mr al Zind is likely to confine its work to the its traditional duties: helping its membership, both by serving them tea and urging the government to increase their salaries, benefits and pensions. But some, such as Mr Ganeena, still do not agree.
"Defending the interests of the country, specifically as it relates to the independence of the judicial authority, is a must for the Judges' Club and this was the main objective of the club when it was established in the first place - not just to have a place to drink tea in." email@example.com