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Political interference leads to Egyptian judge's resignation

As one of Egypt's longest-serving judges, Mahmoud el Khodeiri's decision to resign last month was not taken lightly.

CAIRO // As one of Egypt's longest-serving judges, Mahmoud el Khodeiri's decision to resign last month was not taken lightly. But the level of corruption and government interference in judicial matters, he said, had become too much. "I've been thinking about the resignation for more than two years," said Mr el Khodeiri, in a phone interview from his home in the northern coastal city of Alexandria. "I never ceased struggling for judicial independence, but lately I got so frustrated that I couldn't do my job as I should, so I resigned.

"My resignation is a scream to warn against the dangers facing Egypt and its judiciary. Resigning after 46 years in the judiciary was not easy or a rash emotional decision," he said, adding that he was now free to "engage with people and public work". Mr el Khodeiri, 69, stepped down as deputy chief of Egypt's Appeals Court last month, blaming the judiciary's lack of independence, the cancellation of judicial supervision of legislative elections two years ago and the "continuous attempts" by the justice minister, Mamdouh Marei, "to impose the influence of the executive authority over the judiciary".

He also complained about certain judges getting assigned to sensitive and political cases in order to give a certain ruling according to the justice minister's order. "The government uses the [justice] minister as a tool to make the necessary decisions and guarantee their desired verdict," Mr el Khodeiri told reporters after his resignation, which was accepted by the justice minister. Mr el Khodeiri is a leading figure in a group of judges who call for full independence of the judiciary. The group, known in Egypt as independent pro-reform judges, staged protests in front of the headquarters of the Cairo Judges Club in downtown Cairoin 2006 and revealed vote rigging in elections the year before. The evidence was published in newspapers but were never investigated by the authorities.

Hundreds of activists, both Islamic and secular, who demonstrated in solidarity with the judges, were arrested, with some of them spending up to two months in prison. Mr el Khodeiri is also a founding member of a new group called "Egyptians for free and fair elections". A statement on his website regarding the group's mission reads: "Mr President: There is no free elections without complete judicial supervision."

Egypt's legislative elections are scheduled for next year and presidential elections for 2011. Mr el Khodeiri's resignation has stirred much debate in Egypt and provoked considerable anger, particularly among establishment judges who have accused him of tarnishing the image of the judiciary. The judge, Ahmed el Zend, the director of Egypt's Judges' Club, met the directors of several provincial judges' clubs to discuss possible legal measures to be taken against Mr el Khodeiri. They decided against taking action for the time being, "in order not to make a martyr or a hero out of him", the weekly Al Youm 7 quoted Judge Ismail el Bassiouny, who replaced Mr el Khodeiri as the head of the Alexandria Judges' Club this year, as saying. Instead, they decided to issue a statement expressing anger at and rejection of Mr el Khodeiri's accusations.

Mr el Khodeiri said he was prepared to face any legal action. "I'm not afraid of standing trial. Actually it would be a chance to prove my accusations against them," he said. Mr el Khodeiri has also caused controversy in his objections to sending Muslim Brotherhood members to military trials, which he cites as yet another infringement on the constitution and on the civil judiciary. Many commentators question Mr el Khodeiri's motivations for resigning now, after 46 years and just months before he was due to retire in January. "Did he submit his resignation because he's sick and tired of his job, or to pave the way for becoming more active in the public sphere?" wrote the columnist Maamoun el Bassiouny in the state-owned Rose el Youssef weekly.

Still, Mr el Khodeiri has found much support among those who see his resignation as striking a blow for openness and transparency in the legal and political spheres. "In this gloomy depressing atmosphere, what could we, who are concerned about our country, do except follow the path of the respectable judge el Khodeiri and resign, and reveal the corruption, each in his field, to the whole society?" wrote Salah el Ghazali Harb in the independent daily Al Masry Al Youm.

"This is not escaping from our responsibilities, but it's a first step in a long alternative path to the desired reform." However, even among those who support Mr el Khodeiri, there is little optimism that his resignation will bring about any real change. "I don't see el Khodeiri's resignation as effective," said Wael Khalil, 44, an activist who spent two months in prison for protesting in solidarity with the judges three years ago. "I trust his intentions and motivations, but the problem is that his action doesn't add to the picture.

"The problem of the judges, political opposition movements and activists in Egypt is that they can't find the next step after discrediting the regime - a way out - instead of repeating that the regime has no legitimacy, which is evident. We need collective deeds to confront the regime." nmagd@thenational.ae