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Egypt and Mursi – Judicial reform remains vital

Egypt will always need to revert back to those three elements of reform in the economy, the security sector and the judiciary

H.A. Hellyer

Published: Updated:

The headline is rather stark: “Death Sentence Recommended for Mursi.” The first freely elected Egyptian president in a competitive, if disappointing, race, is not only on trial – Mohammad Mursi, along with others among his supporters, has just been referred for an advisory opinion on whether or not he should receive the death penalty. There deserves to be a pause when reading that line – it is something of a rather glaring precedent.

Three decades of a Mubarak regime ended with scarcely any accountability for the tragedies that befell the state, people and society of Egypt. One year of a Mursi presidency, no doubt full of failings of various kinds – and tier one, tier two and tier three of the Muslim Brotherhood organization is either in exile or behind bars.

The referral is to the Mufti of Egypt, before an actual verdict can be issued. It’s yet another aspect of Egypt’s Shakespearean tragedy – the current state mufti was one appointed during Mursi’s own term, replacing an erstwhile anti-Brotherhood figure that had come to the end of his tenure. His decision is not binding, and we may never know what this confidential opinion even says – but the irony remains.

What will not be particularly confidential is going to be the slew of condemnations and notes of caution from around the international community – including those that consider themselves Cairo’s friends, whether Arab or Western. Already, the US, the UK, and others have expressed concern – it won’t be concern that will shift any relationship between Cairo and these capitals, but it is noteworthy, nonetheless. Beyond them, human rights organizations, ranging from Amnesty to Human Rights Watch to others, have criticized the recommended ruling – and if the recommended ruling is confirmed as an actual verdict, Cairo should expect a great deal more aggravation.

A fulfilment of that verdict would, nevertheless, be an escalation that would require something of a shift within the institutions of the state, along with a certain type of consensus, which doesn’t exist at present. Further afield, it is clear that influential voices in Saudi Arabia, one of Cairo’s key regional allies, are uninterested in an escalation in the crackdown against the Brotherhood. Indeed, some may be more interested in bringing it down a notch. Will Cairo and other capitals in the region have private debates on the point – or will it simply avoid escalation?

Reform, reform, reform

It is tempting to make the ramifications of this case be simply about Mursi: but that would be unwise. Even though the expectation no death penalty on Mursi will actually be applied, that doesn’t mean all is well. That has been the mistake in a number of Egyptian cases that have raised concern in recent years – that when the ultimate penalty is averted, attention is then diverted. Attention should be redirected – that’s true – but not away from the problems that Egypt faces. Rather, it should be directed to the source of those problems, rather than tackling the symptoms.

There is, of course, another option – to simply ignore those structural issues, and focus on the symptoms. That would be a grave mistake. Without change, there is a residual effect that is difficult to measure, but ought not to be ignored. A critical mass of the population genuinely supports the current political dispensation – rightly or wrongly, for a variety of reasons. But a minority in a country of 90 million people is still a big mass of people – one that should not be ignored.

Minorities and majorities, one can note, exist in every country. Their agreements and disagreements can be managed wisely. Politics is, after all, politics - people loathe each other one day; and can be in political coalitions the next. But some institutions are necessary as prerequisites in order to ensure that peaceful transitions can take place – and that is a belief in the credibility and integrity of the system at large.

Four years ago, a revolutionary uprising shook the system in Egypt. The result of that jolt led to one regime becoming several damaged – and meant that a new political dispensation had to form itself over several years. Today, it is difficult to speak of an Egyptian ‘regime’ – that would imply things a type of internal state cohesion that existed in the hey-day of the Mubarak years. But 2015 Egypt doesn’t have that kind of unified authority any longer – and when we get further along in the trial against Mursi and other senior Brotherhood leaders, we may see how those fault lines actually exhibit themselves.

But if we look beyond that analytical point – which is an important one in and of itself – there is another empirical reality at work here. Egypt will face more challenges as the months and years progress – the demographic challenge of the population’s youth; the security challenge that is so clear internally and externally; the economic challenge for this population. In order to face those challenges head on, in a sustained and comprehensive manner, there have always been three things that have to be addressed: economic reform, security sector reform, and judicial reform.

When it comes to this case in particular, it is judicial reform that is of most importance. Addressing that will address not only slews of cases that exist already – but the many cases that are bound to come. In the last five years, Egypt has seen successive presidential authorities express their admiration for the judiciary. Mubarak, followed by Tantawi, followed by Mursi (yes, Mursi), followed by Mansour, followed by Sisi – at no point has there ever been political will to reform the judiciary in any meaningful way. It’s a dead horse, it seems, that so many try to keep flogging – because it has real and lasting consequences.

Politics do change – political administrations shift – and new governments come. But if Egypt is to deal with those changes, standing firm and straight, it will always need to revert back to those three elements of reform in the economy, the security sector and the judiciary. Otherwise, it’s not just one episode that we will see on repeat, again and again. Failure to address that core structural issue of judicial form will result in a systemic pattern of slow failure, or an enduring train-wreck, regardless of who is in charge. It will only be Egyptians who will suffer those consequences in the long run.


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Dr. H.A. Hellyer, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, the Royal United Services Institute, and the Harvard University Kennedy School, previously held senior posts at Gallup and Warwick University. Follow him on Twitter at @hahellyer.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.