CAIRO: In 1984, “Al-Avocato” (The Lawyer) was released in cinemas in Egypt, mocking judges, lawyers, officials and anyone who believes in the legal system. Comedy star Adel Imam played Hassan Sabanekh, a lawyer who uses the loopholes in the law to imprison and release corrupt officials, drug dealers and rogue businessmen depending on his shifting alliances and the changing balance of power in the country. He’s aided by an inconsistent penal code, whimsical judges and bribery-riddled state bureaucracy.
For the observers of Egypt’s current political scene, the satirical film could be screened as a documentary. Now, the political debates and power struggles are reduced to court technicalities. After the generals ruling Egypt resorted to courts as a way to legitimize their power grabs, political discourse partly turned into a discussion of legal procedures.
Did the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) have the right to recommend dissolving the entire parliament while it was only asked to rule on the constitutionally of part of the election law pertaining to third of the MPs? Did the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces have the authority to dissolve the parliament? Can the decisions be overturned in the Administrative Court based on a breach of procedure?
Similar questions abound in the wake of the string of court verdicts and law and constitution rewrites orchestrated by SCAF in the 20 week leading up to the presidential election results which crowned the Muslim Brotherhood (MB)’s Mohamed Morsi as Egypt’s president.
Before the parliament was dissolved, the ministry of justice unilaterally gave powers to army and intelligence officers to arrest civilians at will. On Thursday, June 14, the SCC recommended dissolving the Islamist dominated parliament and SCAF happily complied a day later. On the same weekend, as the results of the presidential runoff trickled in, SCAF issued a constitutional addendum in which it usurped legislative powers and solidified the military’s hold on the executive authority, rendering the president “toothless.”
All three decisions have been contested in court and only the first was overturned by the administrative court. Yet, the answer won’t be found in courtrooms. The legal arguments are just a façade to legitimize the results of meetings held behind closed doors. Yes, media statements, public opinion and street action are manipulated, but only for the sole goal to influence these negotiations.
Politicians I spoke to imply that once agreements are finalized —with SCAF and political powers— a legal leeway will be found. There are different interpretations for the law and once politics is sorted out, the corresponding interpretation will be used.
Many could be offended by the suggestion, and instead hail the “integrity” of Egypt’s judiciary, rejecting any attempt to even criticize a verdict. But they miss an ongoing fight for judicial independence that made its way to newspaper headlines in 2006 when security assaulted judges and supporting protesters. Even without corruption, and even in the miraculous case of the absence of political pressure, the judges are still human. They are affected by the social and political changes.
Comedian Adel Imam himself was convicted this year with charges of contempt of religion. It was believed that if Islamists weren’t in power at the time — the MB and the ultraconservative Salafis together controlled the majority at the parliament then— such lawsuit, which argued that Imam insulted Islam through decades of films, wouldn’t have made it to court. The guilty verdict was later dismissed by another court.
It wasn’t the first time Imam, who vocally supported the former regime, to get into trouble because of his work. Back in 1984, the “Al-Avocato” and its star were given the same courtroom treatment the film mocked. The film was sued for contempt of the judiciary. The judge that found the filmmakers guilty resigned after the backlash. The judge, who over the years became one of Egypt’s notorious lawyers known for manipulating the loopholes of the penal code against personal opponents and in favor of equally notorious clients, later took Imam to court for libel but eventually reached a settlement. The judge, Mortada Mansour, is now facing trial along with officials of the former regime for his alleged responsibility in organizing attacks on protesters in Tahrir Square on Feb. 2, 2011, dubbed the “Battle of the Camel”.
Egypt’s history is full of similar cases, where the courts’ mood changes in accordance with the whims of the state. Exceptions are few and shouldn’t be relied on as potential game changes. Earlier this year, an MP claimed that the People’s Assembly Speaker was threatened with an SCC verdict to dissolve parliament if MPs insisted on ousting the military-appointed government through a no-confidence vote. He wasn’t taken seriously and his statements were at best dismissed as a new development in the MB’s relation with SCAF.
As long as the negotiations take place behind closed doors and the overlapping interests of state institutions and the specific goals and concessions of each side remain a mystery, people won’t have anything but the intricacies of courtrooms to analyze in a bid to reach reliable speculations. As exciting as it could be, our de facto court drama is nothing but make believe and they are not remotely as funny or entertaining as the witty “Al-Avocato” — unless of course a judge suddenly decides to use the same legal loopholes to imprison those who have been manipulating them in a real-life enactment of the final scene. But that’s unlikely.