Egyptian justice: in whose court?

The release of a leading activist this month points up the split between Egypt's two rival judicial systems.

The special court found him guilty. The supreme court set him free. And somewhere in between the country's two systems, Egyptian-American democracy advocate Saadeddin Ibrahim learned earlier this month, the story of Egyptian justice is being written, one case at a time.

Mr. Ibrahim's High Security Court trial last May showed the country's justice system at its worst: The main charge against him - "defaming Egypt abroad" - was an embarrassment to many of his countrymen. His lawyers were denied access to prosecution documents until months into the trial, and several "witnesses" who supposedly accepted bribes from him testified that they had never met him. Still, after just 90 minutes of deliberation, judges delivered a guilty verdict.

Then, earlier this month, the Court of Cassation - Egypt's highest regular court - reversed the ruling.

Taken together, the rulings appear to show Egypt's parallel judicial systems at odds. But analysts say it is also a hopeful sign that the nation's highest court is willing to overturn the findings of notoriously corrupt shadow courts.

During his 20-year fight against Islamists and the odd campaigner for election reform, President Hosni Mubarak has been augmenting a powerful network of special courts and emergency laws instituted by predecessors Gamal Abdel-Nasser and Anwar Sadat, and has relied on them heavily to do his political bidding. But Egypt's normal court system has retained a surprising level of independence, and has even instituted modest reforms: cutting case times, educating judges, and providing election oversight.

The Court of Cassation that ordered Ibrahim's release on Dec. 3 is a case in point. Said to be free from political influence, it twice overturned Ibrahim's special-court convictions on procedural grounds (the substance of High Security Court rulings cannot be appealed), and will preside over his final trial next month.

"We knew the reputation of this court, so we had a feeling that eventually we would win," says Ibrahim's wife, Barbara. "But [the Cassation] Court usually moves slowly. I still can't believe it. We had him home in a matter of hours."

Indeed, Egypt's standard courts have not shied away from opinions that could embarrass the executive office or other power centers. In October, news headlines screamed "Justice Served" after a judge threw out a case against a group of ticket-takers and minor civil servants blamed for a train fire that burned 360 passengers alive. In his ruling, the judge even questioned why senior officials hadn't been held to criminal account for the wholesale deterioration of the railway system.

But some worry that the powerful emergency legal system may be eroding the power - or even the will - of Egypt's standard judiciary to defy political convention and institute reforms. While a recent United Nations report praised Egypt for institutionalizing a system of "checks and balances" against authoritarianism based on its oversight of elections, the Constitutional Court's efforts to monitor polling stations during parliamentary elections this year were overshadowed by mass emergency law arrests to intimidate would-be voters aligned with the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood party.

Special courts and emergency laws have been used throughout the history of modern Egypt to punish "terrorists," or Islamist opposition to the presidency. This "defense of national security" rationale has been heavily invoked since the 1970s, and particularly since 9/11.

But an Arab Human Development Report released this July warns of the dangers of tossing human rights and democracy aside for the sake of fighting terrorist groups.

"People seem to be accepting a kind of tradeoff, an immoral tradeoff, between human rights and security," says UNDP Cairo chief Antonio Vigilante, noting that America is leading the trend since Sept. 11. "But it is not demonstrated anywhere that totalitarian regimes are better at guaranteeing security than democratic regimes."

Some Egyptians have reached the same conclusion. At Ibrahim's trial last July, the former chief justice of Egypt's Supreme Constitutional Court, Awad Al Morr, called the law against tarnishing Egypt's image abroad under which Ibrahim was convicted "a great humiliation to Egypt.

"It is this that has defamed the state and the nation," he said, not Ibrahim.

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