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. Massive crowds have gathered to support the judges – and have caught Mubarak’s regime completely unaware.
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. 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.