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Egypt's battle moves to judiciary

With Egypt's legislature and executive under their control, president Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood appear impatient to gain control of the third branch of government: the judiciary. Youssef Hamza reports from Cairo

Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood members, one wearing a t-shirt that reads “clean judiciary” protest in front of the Supreme Judicial Council in Cairo.
Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood members, one wearing a t-shirt that reads “clean judiciary” protest in front of the Supreme Judicial Council in Cairo.

CAIRO // With Egypt's legislature and executive under their control, president Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood appear impatient to gain control of the third branch of government: the judiciary.

For many judges and prosecutors, their independence is at stake in the face of growing pressure from Islamists. The opposition accuses Mr Morsi's backers of calling for reform of the judiciary as a cover to install their own supporters.

But for Mr Morsi and his allies, judicial reform is crucial, they argue, because remnants of Hosni Mubarak's regime within the judiciary are determined to derail the country's transition to democratic rule.

A former aide to Mr Morsi has complained of legislative attempts to "assassinate the judiciary" while divisions over the judiciary stoked tensions this month that resulted in street battles between Brotherhood supporters and anti-government protesters.

Mr Morsi, a former Brotherhood leader who took office 10 months ago as Egypt's first democratically elected president, has made little effort to conceal his contempt for the courts, say his critics.

Although Mr Morsi professes his respect for the rulings, he has complained that the courts have released Mubarak-era officials.

"What is left is for them to collect rewards," the president scoffed on many occasions this month after several leaders of the former regime were released.

He has also issued decrees, since rescinded, that granted him, as well as Islamist-dominated bodies, such as the 100-member panel that drafted the constitution, immunity from the courts.

The appointment of his attorney-general, Talaat Abdullah, was ruled illegal last month by one of the courts. He remains in office while the verdict is appealed.

On Sunday, Mr Morsi's office suggested that a compromise had been reached with the judiciary to defuse a political storm over a proposed law that would have forced thousands of Egypt's judges into retirement by lowering the retirement age from 70 to 60. It would affect nearly a quarter of the 13,000 judges and prosecution officials.

The draft would also have barred the courts from reviewing or overturning presidential decrees - including his unilateral appointment of Mr Abdullah - as well as placed a ban on judges who refused to supervise elections.

A statement issued after a meeting between Mr Morsi and senior judges said Egypt's leader would hold a conference this week to sort out a compromise with judges.

"The president said he will personally adopt all the conclusions of the conference for proposals of bills to submit them to the legislative council," the statement read.

After the meeting, opponents of the proposed law cancelled protests scheduled for yesterday.

It is too early to say whether Mr Morsi - accused by critics of reneging on a host of promises going back to his election campaign - is willing to leave the judiciary alone and risk rulings against his policies and those of the Brotherhood.

Mr Morsi has recently been supportive of judicial independence but he has done nothing to stop his supporters in the upper house of parliament - a toothless chamber now acting as the legislature - from debating the draft laws that could clip the wings of the judiciary.

Many of the country's judges and prosecutors have protested against the proposed laws.

Led by Ahmed El Zind, head of the country's influential Judges Club, judges are threatening to take their case against the president to the United Nations and the African Union. But for now, the battle is being fought in Egypt.

On April 19, thousands of Islamists led by supporters of Mr Morsi's Brotherhood rallied outside the country's main court complex in downtown Cairo to press demands for what they call the "purging" of the judiciary. The result was clashes with the opposition, which has warned of what it called a "massacre of the judiciary" and is threatening to step up street protests over the issue.

The alleged attempts by Mr Morsi and his Brotherhood to control the judiciary are causing cracks in his own palace and cabinet.

Last week, Mr Morsi's top legal adviser, Mohammed Fouad Gadallah, quit. In his resignation letter he complained of a lack of dialogue and the monopolisation of decision-making by one group, a thinly veiled reference to the Brotherhood. There was "no clear vision" in running state affairs, he said.

Two days before, justice minister Ahmed Mekki, a one-time supporter of the president, also resigned.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

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