The attack on the father of the Egyptian judiciary, Abdel-Razzaq El-Sanhouri, in his office in 1954 when he was head of the Egyptian State Council, has returned to the surface once again. Here I am talking about the recent confrontation between the Egyptian judiciary and presidential institution, when an attempt was made to dismiss the prosecutor general from office via a presidential decree, a move which violated both the law and the “separation of powers” principle, which is supposed to form the basis of any republican regime.
The prosecutor general channeled the spirit of El-Sanhouri when he displayed his commitment to the principle of judicial immunity against dismissal, and when he disregarded warnings that he may be exposed to attacks by demonstrators. In 1954, with the country in a state of revolution at the time, protestors entered El-Sanhouri’s office by force and physically assaulted him. The present day prosecutor general, Abdel Meguid Mahmoud, has claimed it is an honor for him to now be in El-Sanhouri’s position.
And rightfully so. El-Sanhouri stood by the “July Revolution” in its early years and then disagreed with its laws in 1954, yet still, decades after his death, he is considered a respected legal reference and his writings are studied. After the development of constitutions and laws in the newly independent Arab states, and after everyone recovered from what happened –with history no longer remembering the names of the individuals who carried out the assault – El-Sanhouri was honored by the Egyptian state in 1970.
There may be differences between what happened in 1954 and what happened in October 2012 in terms of the details, circumstances, and the stature of the characters in the story, but the general scene has a disturbingly large amount of similarities. Essentially we are talking about a conflict between the executive authority – appointed by the public to carry out the will of the people as quickly as possible – and a judiciary that has traditions, laws, and a method based on the evidence and arguments of lawyers. It takes considerable time for the judiciary to reach a verdict, and often this does not satisfy the desires of the people in a given moment of justice.
The principle of the separation of powers in a republican regime outlines three main authorities: Executive (the presidency and the government), legislative (parliament) and judicial. There is no overlapping area of authority, and there should be a balance between the main institutions of the state and a process of control and accountability. This is a principle applied vigorously in all established democracies, the majority of them Western, whilst often in the third world there are provisions that are unfair on one way or another.
In some fiery revolutionary moments throughout history we have seen popular demands to resort to emergency measures. Indeed, this has happened in many of the great revolutions, including the French, only for people to discover their mistake years later. Emergency powers, just as they can be effectively at times, ultimately open the door for those in power to apply them at will. The French revolution is an example of this, for just as it is a revolution synonymous with entrenching the concepts of citizenship, justice and freedom, it is also remembered for terrorizing opponents, guillotines and rolling heads.
With regards to the crisis or confrontation that the political scene in Egypt is currently witnessing, the circumstances surrounding President Mursi’s decree seem unclear. The President is aware that the prosecutor general and the judiciary are immune from the executive branch, so this mistake can be interpreted in various ways. But in the end, history will ultimately record that the Egyptian President withdrew his decree, and the Egyptian judiciary resolutely defended its independence. In fact, if we consider the two phases that Egypt has passed through since the 25th January 2011, whether the reign of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces or the post-election era that brought about a president from the Muslim Brotherhood, we will find that there has been no recourse to emergency powers in either phase. Furthermore, most political forces have openly stood against the practice of referring civilians to military courts.
The individuals involved are not important, what is important is the principle and maintaining it. Everyone wants a republic that respects the law, so as to set a precedent for future generations, and so that Egypt is seen as a modern state that the world respects. As for taking the law into one’s own hands by demonstrating or storming buildings, this will only lead to chaos.