Egypt's embattled bench

Two judges Thursday face hearings for criticizing state manipulation of the judiciary.

In the ongoing tug of war between this country's judiciary and the state over freedom on the bench, two prominent judges face disciplinary action Thursday for their outspoken criticism of election fraud.

While the government says the two men have insulted the judiciary by accusing fellow judges of being complicit in vote rigging in last year's parliamentary race, opposition groups say this is yet another example of Egypt's unwillingness to reform and back away from a pattern of quashing dissent.

The country's reform movement has taken up their cause for an independent judiciary, which many see as the most important step in the fight for more democratic reform.

If punished by a disciplinary panel Thursday, the two judges in question face being removed from their posts.

"Judicial independence is crucial," says Mohamed el-Sayed Said, deputy head of the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. "As long as a person can be tried and put in jail without following the rule of law, we will never be really free."

When the hearing against the judges began last month, thousands of riot police surrounded Cairo's High Court building, beating and arresting dozens of protesters who were demonstrating in support of the judges. Activists say that at least 11 of those who were arrested are still being held.

Thursday, fewer demonstrations are expected as the government has cracked down on protests since the triple bombing on April 24 in Egypt's Sinai peninsula. The country has also renewed its controversial emergency law that allows the government to detain people without charges.

At last month's hearing, thousands of police also surrounded downtown Cairo's stately Judges Club, where about 80 judges from around the country were holding a sit-in to protest the disciplinary measures against the two judges and to demand judicial independence. About 35 judges are continuing their sit-in that began in mid-April, saying they will stay until their demands are met.

Hesham el-Bastawissi, one of the two judges facing disciplinary proceedings, says that because he was outspoken in denouncing fraud during the elections, Thursday's hearing is merely a ploy to silence him.

"We are using our right to talk to the press, to tell people what happened during the parliamentary elections," says Mr. Bastawissi, an appeals court judge and 29-year veteran of the court, referring to himself and the other accused judge, Mahmoud Mekki. "The government wants to punish us, to keep us silent, so we won't talk about this," he says.

Observers worry that the accused judges will not get a fair trial since members of the disciplinary panel have publicly denounced Bastawissi and Mr. Mekki's statements. The government is also questioning seven other judges, who complained of fraud in last year's vote and who recently had their immunity lifted.

Egypt's judiciary is not only one of the most respected and trusted organizations in the country, but it is an official institution with a history of fighting for reform.

In 1968, when the judges demanded greater safeguards for an independent judiciary, a "judges' massacre" resulted, where more than 100 judges were dismissed. Last spring the judges threatened to boycott parliamentary elections if they were not given full autonomy to supervise the vote.

Egypt has about 8,500 judges. The vast majority support the struggle for an independent judiciary, judges and analysts say. This is essential to implement real reform in Egypt, they say, since judges are the ones who supervise elections and guarantee the transition of power.

Last year, it seemed that Egypt was on the way to reform when the authorities began allowing more freedom of the press and more demonstrations with less intimidation from security forces. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak also announced last year that there would be multiparty presidential elections in the fall.

But since then, reform has stagnated, analysts say. Earlier this year, Mr. Mubarak postponed municipal elections for two years in order, many say, to prevent the opposition Muslim Brotherhood from more election victories after their surprise win in the recent parliamentary vote. Security forces have rounded up dozens of Brotherhood members in recent weeks.

Analysts and judges say that demands for an independent judiciary, which include restricting the state's control of salaries, bonuses, and disciplinary proceedings, are actually quite reasonable and an easy way for the state to win public support. The authorities are afraid to make concessions to the judges, sources say, because officials are worried that this will just empower other reformist groups.

"The government doesn't want to look like it's lost," says Chief Justice Tarek el-Tawil, "even though if it accepts our demands it'll be very popular. But the government doesn't want to look like it's conceded. Then all the other political groups will make a move and it could lose control."

Meanwhile the state has portrayed this ongoing struggle with the judges as an internal dispute. Last week Mubarak blamed "internal differences" within the judiciary that he said the government had nothing to do with.

Pro-government judges argue that judges must adhere to a strict code of conduct and that Bastawissi and Mekki insulted the judiciary. They also argue that Egypt's judiciary is completely independent. "We already have full independence," says Essam Abbas, a supreme court judge. "We have more independence than judges in the United States."

As for the judges fighting for independence, they seem ready for the long-haul. Bastawissi says that if he's found guilty and dismissed, he will argue his case in European courts.

"We'll continue even if we lose our jobs," says Chief Justice Hany Abdel Wahid, speaking from the Judges Club, where he is participating in the sit-in. "This is an issue of principle."

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