Appointing Egyptian Judges: Can Al Sisi Have it all?

“I am not indebted to anybody”, presidential candidate Al Sisi unequivocally asserted during his election campaign, wherein he did not present any political program, relying completely on the fact that the vast majority of Egyptians, eager to get rid of Muslim Brotherhood rule, were certain to vote him into office. Nonetheless, the President missed the fact that, as the leader of a nation of 100 million inhabitants, the challenge he faces is not about paying his debts to the citizens and institutions that helped him to assume power; it is about successfully ruling a nation where persons in authority are quite powerful in their various capacities – and where no clear ruling mechanism is in place.

The recently ratified amendment to the Judicial Authority Law providing for the appointment of heads of judicial councils through a mechanism whereby each council nominates three judges and presents the candidates to the president who appoints the most suitable nominee has already been applied to the appointment of state university presidents and faculty deans. It comes in the wake of restrictions imposed on the activities of civil societies and many other acts that enhance the president’s power at the expense of national institutions and authorities. The implicit justification for these acts, as we Egyptians understand it, is that they aim to prevent Muslim Brotherhood cadres from occupying crucial positions and eventually working against the state. Nevertheless, some consider the new amendment unconstitutional, while the state perceives it as a means to reinforce its power.

Egypt does not have full-fledged independent institutions. However, we do have a ‘semi-independency mechanism’ that gives thousands of Egyptian executives in authority the impression that they are independent – when in fact they are fully controlled by the state. Basically, the new amendment replaces the clever, manipulative mock independency structure that is already in place with one that is clearly state controlled and that works on further neutering state authorities and institutions to empower the president further. Will it work?

Life and politics have taught us that executives who are proud to work in their various capacities usually do better when they feel independently authorized, and often end up offering their loyalty to the leader who, in turn, trusts them and listens to their views, even when they differ with his. In fact, this is the premise upon which Mubarak managed to set up a successful regime that enabled him to rule Egypt for three decades. The former president was quite talented in using tactics and tools to serve his political ends, thereby succeeding in eliciting implicit backing for his much-criticized policies from many institutions and government entities. Mubarak’s regime has been defined as corrupt – yet it was a well-functioning regime, with a minimal amount of internal hostility.

Al Sisi’s ruling mechanism is completely different to that of Mubarak; he appoints executives who can serve him best within the needed timeframe, then lets them go without giving any reasonable explanation or expressing any kind of appreciation for the services they provided. Al Sisi believes that citizens should aim to serve their country without harboring any personal aspirations, period. He has been working on adjusting many of our ruling mechanisms to serve his policies better (creating dysfunctional national institutions, marginalizing politicians, etc.), thus giving a clear message that everyone in Egypt is to be used for a period and then let go. This undertaking is simply costing him the support of many of his key proponents.

During the 365-day rule of the Muslim Brotherhood, institutions and government entities played an essential role in undermining former President Morsi, which helped to eventually get rid of him. Being in power is not as important as having the ability (that former President Morsi clearly lacked) to mobilize key influencers and decision-makers.

Egyptians are not naturally a conferential society, but they know how to use their bureaucratic capacity to make life difficult for their ruler. Our judges are used to the system of appointing the heads of judicial bodies based on their seniority. They may have acknowledged the new amendments to the law, but they are not likely to function as a key pillar of the state in the same way as they used to in the past (to the country’s benefit or detriment). As with other national institutions, weakening the judiciary is simply failing the Egyptian state that is seeking to establish stability. To move our country forward, Al Sisi needs to use less of his authoritative power and more of his persuasive skills; having it all won’t last.

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