Politics, Judicial Fights at Play in Prosecutor’s Resignation
Cairo – Lines of plain-clothed conscripts and officers blocked the curved hallways leading to the prosecutor general’s office. In front of the bevy of close-shaved heads in sweaters and jumpers, young prosecutors stood in ties, neat suits and coats in an uneasy, hours-long standoff on Monday, 17 December 2012.
They were steadfast in their siege of the office and negotiating with the prosecutor general but unwilling to turn it into a confrontation, which they saw as beneath them as members of the judiciary.
By nightfall, tens of prosecutors were at the doorstep of Prosecutor General Talaat Abdallah, chanting “leave” as the tired security personnel sat in formation on the side. Adel el-Saied, head of the prosecution’s technical office, announced Abdallah’s resignation, to be handed to the Supreme Judicial Council on 23 December 2012.
Distrustful prosecutors called on journalists to advance to the office to document the announcement. The handwritten document wasn’t binding and could be denied later, they shouted.
The commotion outside culminated in Saied holding the handwritten document through a half opened door to flickering flashlights. It was a moment of victory and relief, followed by pushing and shoving to get Abdallah out as the prosecutors chanted “shukran,” or thank you.
Victorious, prosecutors descended the stairway to the vaulted hall of the High Court. The celebratory tone overshadowed the muted discussions of potential worst-case scenarios – chief among them is Abdallah’s replacement.
The Muslim Brotherhood described it as a crime and an infringement on the judiciary worthy of investigation and punishment.
Prosecutors, vocally critical of Abdallah’s alleged political affiliation to the Islamists, saw it as the exact opposite.
“This is confirmation on the rule of law,” prosecutor Shady Khalifa, member of the Judges Club board, told me Monday night at the nearby Club headquarters. For him and many of his colleagues, the appointment of Abdallah by the president and the sacking of his predecessor was the infringement they corrected.
Between the two sides, the scene is much more complex, embroiled in a polarized political context and a mix of genuine and malicious struggles fought in the name of the independence of the judiciary.
The seemingly happy ending for the prosecutors on Monday is one of ongoing political standoffs between the judiciary and the presidency, the latest and most prominent of which involves the Supreme Constitutional Court. It kicked off with President Mohamed Mursi’s constitutional decree on 22 November 2012, sacking the former Prosecutor General Abdel-Meguid Mahmoud, a hated figure from the Mubarak regime. Mursi also gave his decisions, the upper house of parliament and the constituent assembly drafting the constitution judicial immunity.
The crisis intensified as several courts suspended their work across the country in protest of the decree and the Judges Clubs decided to boycott the referendum on the rushed constitution. Many prosecutors joined the boycott calls.
Personification and Politicization
“We are not against Talaat bey in person, but the way he was appointed,” said Prosecutor General Deputy Amir el-Ayoubi, using the pre-1952 aristocracy title “bey” that is still common among the police and the judiciary as a term of respect. Ayoubi was among several prosecutors that eventually convinced Abdallah to submit his written resignation after the later initially said he would consult president Mursi first.
Yet, among the thousand or so prosecutors that filled the dusty beige walls of the High Court there was evident disdain for Abdallah’s decisions in his four weeks in office. This month, he transferred the attorney general responsible for investigating the clashes outside the presidential palace on 5 December 2012.
East Cairo Attorney General Mostafa Khater said in an official memo that he was under pressure by Abdallah to change the results of the investigations and not to release the defendants arrested by Mursi supporters. While the questioning was still in process, Mursi said in a televised speech that men had confessed to being paid to instigate violence.
Following the public circulation of the memo, Khater was reinstated at his position. Protesting prosecutors on Monday said this wasn’t the only case. They claimed Abdallah was replacing attorney generals with members of the Judges for Egypt group, known for its support of the MB.
“The Supreme Judicial Council has been passive about the political activity and affiliation of these judges,” one prosecutor told me. He refused to have his name published, saying the foray of the judiciary into politics and media has damaged their credibility. Colleagues speaking against these practices are then accused of being politicized and compromising their integrity, he added.
Credibility aside, politics is having a negative impact on the independence of the judiciary. It reduces the debate to a power struggle and fights over a handful of names rather than focusing on the reform process.
Ahmed el-Zend, head of the Judges Club and a controversial Mubarak era official, said on Monday night that Mahmoud should be reinstated. The prosecutors on the other hand want the new prosecutor general to be selected through the Supreme Judicial Council and to be without political affiliation.
“People are using this state of political polarization to achieve specific demands,” said rights lawyer Ahmed Ragheb, head of the National Community for Human Rights and law.
In this power struggle, opposition forces and protests are used by each side as props.
Following an earlier failed attempt to remove Mahmoud, the Mubarak-appointed prosecutor ordered the investigation into clashes in Tahrir Square between Mursi supporters and opposition last October. He had failed consistently to take similar actions in incidents of brutal and deadly crackdowns by security on protesters over the past two years.
Activists believe the same could be said about the Khater-Abdallah impasse over the investigations of the 5 December clashes. According to Ragheb, Khater was part of the prosecution team that failed to secure the conviction of Mubarak and Ministry of Interior officials for their responsibility of killing protesters during the January 25 uprising in 2011.
Ragheb was equally critical of all sides: Mahmoud, Zend, Abdallah, Khater, and the young prosecutors.
Starting with Mahmoud’s removal, there was no effort to reform the public prosecution as a whole, he said. Critics of the MB blame the group for trying to win the loyalty of state institutions rather than purge them. Similarly, a big part of the current movement against Abdallah stems from opposition to the MB and to change, rather than genuine reform, Ragheb said.
“How many of these prosecutors were complicit in covering up crimes of torture and unlawful detention?” he asked. Their demands are legitimate, but they fall short of reform and aim at protecting their own personal interests, Ragheb explained.
The current political context also imposes itself on the debate, with other legal experts choosing to focus on the immediate impact of Monday’s events.
“The good and new step here is the stir among the ranks of young prosecutors,” said Nasser Amin, director of the Arab Center for the Independence of the Judiciary. “The prosecutors acted emotionally, but they have to be wary of a political conspiracy,” he warned.
He argued that the deference of Abdallah’s resignation to a day after the referendum ends is a bid to save the vote. He claimed Abdallah only aims to get 3,000 prosecutors to supervise the referendum in a wave of boycotts.
Despite assurances from the Election Committee that polling stations are under complete judicial supervision as specified by the law, numerous complaints were filed against what some voters claimed was impersonation of judges during the first phase of the referendum on 15 December 2012. Khalifa said that up until 3 am on 15 December, prosecutors were getting phone calls asking them to supervise polling stations void of judges.
The prosecutors’ decision to continue to boycott the referendum could be viewed solely as a politically motivated action aimed at Mursi and the MB, or as leverage in achieving more demands that could be either reform oriented or protective of personal interests. The choice of the new prosecutor general could be a good indicator, but distrust remains the keyword in describing speculation about the next step .