How Egypt’s crackdown on dissent ensnared the country’s top judges

Judicial records show that since 2013, disciplinary committees forcibly retired 59 judges – including 32 of the 75 who signed the Armada statement

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On the evening of July 21, 2013, dozens of judges gathered on the Armada, a floating restaurant docked where the Nile glides past the leafy suburb of Maadi in southern Cairo.

The judges, some of whom ranked amongst the most senior in Egypt, were there to break the Ramadan fast. As they tucked into grilled kebab and tahina, the men discussed the military takeover that had taken place three weeks earlier.

Led by General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, a former head of military intelligence, Egypt’s military had ousted President Mohamed Mursi and his government following mass popular protests against his rule. Mursi, a member of Islamist group the Muslim Brotherhood, had been democratically elected a year earlier. Now he was in jail.

One of the judges, Mohamed Nagi Derballah, suggested issuing a statement condemning the takeover. The document he drafted that evening called for a return to “constitutional legitimacy” – a democratic government – but steered clear of directly criticising the military or demanding Mursi’s reinstatement.

More than 30 judges signed the document that night. Over the following days others added their names, including some living abroad. Ultimately, 75 judges signed the statement. A senior judge read it out at a news conference on July 24.

Three years on

Three years on, nearly half the judges who signed the statement have been removed from office as part of what they say is a crackdown by Sisi aimed at bringing the judiciary under tighter government control.

Judicial records show that since 2013, disciplinary committees formed by the Supreme Judiciary Council, the governing body which sits on top of the Egyptian judicial ladder, have forcibly retired 59 judges – including 32 of the 75 who signed the Armada statement. Some of the judges who signed the Armada letter recanted and were not disciplined.

An Egyptian judicial disciplinary committee has the power to reprimand judges, transfer them to other posts, force them to retire, or clear them of wrongdoing. After the committee rules on a case, Sisi signs off on the decision.

Most of the 59 judges forced into retirement were ruled to have broken a law that prohibits judges from “practising politics.”

The judges who signed the statement ate at this floating restaurant in Cairo. (File photo: Reuters)
The judges who signed the statement ate at this floating restaurant in Cairo. (File photo: Reuters)

But 25 of the judges told Reuters they believe the real reason they were pushed out was to scare other judges into toeing the government line. They say their dismissals were a deliberate attack on one of the last institutions that can check the power of the state and protect Egyptians’ basic freedoms.

“They (the state) don’t want to allow any dissenting voices. We should all have the state’s point of view,” said Mohamed Zein al-Abedeen, who at 35 was the youngest to be forced out.

Ahmed al-Khatib, another of the judges to lose his job, said, “Anyone who is a reformist or has critical opinions gets filtered out. They (the state) are targeting those calling for judicial reform or judicial independence.”

Repeated phone calls and emails to Sisi’s office for comment went unanswered.

‘Idea of revenge’

The country’s justice ministry denied there was any attempt to reshape the Egyptian judiciary. “The idea of revenge against specific judges or reshaping the judicial branch is absolutely not true. We have in Egypt the principle of judicial independence,” Judge Khaled al-Nashar, the Assistant to the Minister of Justice for Parliamentary and Media Affairs, told Reuters.

“The executive branch does not interfere in the affairs of the judicial branch. In all honesty the executive branch does not and will never have the ability to reshape the judiciary. The president himself says openly in speeches that he does not interfere in the affairs of the judiciary.”

Egypt’s judiciary has always enjoyed a degree of independence. Long-serving autocrat Hosni Mubarak, whose ouster by a popular uprising in 2011 opened the way for Mursi’s election, mostly relied on military tribunals to silence his opponents. Most judges who spoke to Reuters said that political interference in the judiciary used to be relatively rare.

Ahmed al-Zend (with microphone in hand) addresses a meeting of Egyptian judges in April 2013. (File photo: Reuters)
Ahmed al-Zend (with microphone in hand) addresses a meeting of Egyptian judges in April 2013. (File photo: Reuters)

Sisi has been more prepared to intervene. Elected president in 2014 a year after he seized power, he has cracked down on Islamist opposition groups, secular activists, journalists, students – and, the judges say, the judiciary.

“The judiciary in Egypt is being used as a tool by the regime for revenge,” said Judge Mohsen Fadli, a former deputy to Egypt’s top judge and another who said he was forced to retire because he signed the Armada statement.

The judges also allege that former colleagues who helped force them out did so because it was likely to advance their own careers. Three senior judges have been made justice minister since 2013, including the incumbent. The three had submitted legal complaints against colleagues, ruled that colleagues had broken the law on expressing political opinion, or sat on disciplinary boards. At least seven other judges who submitted complaints against colleagues have been given senior positions in the justice ministry.

The judge who drafted the initial complaint against those who signed the Armada letter was Ahmed al-Zend. Until 2015, Zend was the president of the Judges Club, a social group and informal professional association. Zend was extremely critical of Mursi when he was president and publicly backed Sisi after the military takeover. Sisi made Zend justice minister in 2015.
Zend could not be reached for comment. Sisi sacked him as minister in March, after Zend told a talk show host on live television that he would imprison anyone who broke the law, even if it were the Prophet Mohammad.

Nashar, the justice ministry spokesman, said Zend’s appointment as minister was not connected to his role in the Armada case, and that the two other ministers and seven officials were all appointed on merit.

Nashar further rejected any suggestion Hossam Abd al-Rehim, the current minister, had benefited from his role in the Armada case. While Abd al-Rehim had been the chair of the Supreme Disciplinary Council as it considered the case, he had been appointed a minister before the judicial disciplinary committee ruled, Nashar said.