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On Egypt's politicised judiciary

As the eyes of the world turn to Syria, the Egyptian crisis is continuing. This week, it was announced that deposed president Mohammed Morsi and 14 of his Muslim Brotherhood colleagues will be face trial for inciting violence and murder.


The charges relate to an incident in December, when Morsi allegedly forced protesters outside his palace to disperse. He is accused of provoking deadly clashes between protesters and his own supporters, although the evidence against him and the other accused was not detailed by the judges announcing the charges. The move comes just 12 days after former dictator (and Morsi’s predecessor), Hosni Mubarak, was released from prison, giving the indictment a certain symbolic resonance. Mubarak remains under house arrest as he awaits a second trial on charges of complicity in the deaths of hundreds of protesters.

Since he was deposed in a military takeover on 3 July, Morsi has been held in prison without formal charges. Certainly, what happened that day was dark, and came at a particularly troubled time in Morsi’s tumultuous presidency. Civilian supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood violently dispersed opposition protesters from a sit-in outside the presidential palace. According to human rights groups, tactics used by the Islamists included beating protesters and detaining some for hours. Yet there are no public statements demonstrating that Morsi personally incited violence on 5 December. Indeed, against the current political climate, it is difficult to see the current charges against Morsi and the other Brotherhood leaders – which carry the death sentence – as anything other than politically motivated. Since the 3 July ouster, in the region of 1,000 Muslim Brotherhood supporters have been killed, and 2,000 arrested. Of course, no-one is likely to face trial for the incredibly violent dispersal of two protest camps demanding Morsi’s reinstatement.

The proximity to the freeing of Mubarak was not the only symbolic timing; the charges were also announced on the same day that Egypt’s military-backed government named a 50-person committee to amend a draft constitution. The committee includes just a few Islamists (as does the transitional government). This demonstrates that the Muslim Brotherhood – one of the main political movements in the country – is essentially being shut out of the process. Officials said that members of the Brotherhood had refused to participate, but given the charges against senior leadership and the arrest of hundreds of supporters, the group’s position is untenable.

What the indictment appears to demonstrate, once again, is the transitional government’s wish to drive the Muslim Brotherhood underground and away from the mainstream. If the violent dispersal of the protest camps – described by some commentators as a “massacre” – was not enough, the latest order seems to extinguish all hope of some reconciliation that would bring the Brotherhood into the political process. Ever since Morsi was deposed, analysts have expressed concern about the possible ramifications of this. If the message being sent is essentially that there is no place for Islamists within a democratic system, it could ultimately strengthen the hand of violent extremists.

Egypt’s chaotic political transition has seen continued tension between secularists and Islamists, and an oscillation between military and civilian leaders. Throughout this jolting democratic experiment, the judiciary has remained highly politicised; a leftover from decades of authoritarian rule. Given this background, it is highly unlikely that the detained Muslim Brotherhood leaders will receive a fair trial. “The Egyptian judicial system tends to polarize,” Joachim Paul, of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Tunis, told German newspaper Deutsche Welle. “I can’t imagine that the judiciary will suddenly conduct completely neutral and independent trials under the rule of law.”

Al-Jazeera America reported on Monday that an Egyptian judicial panel advised a court to dissolve the Muslim Brotherhood as a legally registered non-governmental organisation. If acted upon, this would create a legal challenge to the powerful group, in tandem with the intense military crackdown. This double-pronged attack demonstrates a concerted effort to stamp out the group altogether, or at the very least, make it difficult for it to function. It is also further evidence of politicised actions by the judiciary.

Many judges, appointed during Mubarak’s era, are deeply reactionary. There was a strong response after a group of 75 judges of mixed political orientation issued a statement on 22 July, opposing the deposition of Morsi on the grounds that it violated the constitution in removing “the legitimate elected president”. Two days later, a committee within the judges’ club issued a statement accusing the signatories of affiliation with the Brotherhood, and several of these judges are now under investigation.

Hopes of political reconciliation appear ever slimmer, as both the judiciary and the military-backed government act to stamp out any dissent. The irony is that the main grievance of the people who turned out for mass protests against Morsi back in early July was that he had ignored the voices of secularists and failed to rule in a democratic and pluralistic manner. Clearly, the coup has done little to further the aims of democracy.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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