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Parliamentary committee approves judicial appointment bill in surprise move

Parliament’s Legislative and Constitutional Affairs Committee has approved a bill which grants the president powers to appoint Egypt’s top judicial posts. The decision, which affects all judicial branches, has been decried as a blow to the independence of the judiciary.

The draft law, approved on Monday, reverses the long-standing seniority-based system of advancement within judicial ranks. It has yet to be approved by the State Council, before undergoing another vote in Parliament.

The amendment proposes that the president select the heads of Egypt’s judicial bodies from a pool of three individuals nominated by each institution’s supreme council.

While the common court system and State Council currently base appointments on seniority as a customary practice, the Supreme Constitutional Court is the only body to have formalized the process in its bylaws.

The approval of the bill came only half an hour after the Legislative and Constitutional Affairs Committee submitted it to the general assembly. Twenty four committee members approved the bill, 14 rejected it and two abstained.

The State Council previously rejected the draft law in a letter sent to Parliamentary Speaker Ali Abdel Aal in February, affirming the council’s insistence on appointment by seniority. The Supreme Judicial Council followed suit on March 12, which prompted the Legislative and Constitutional Affairs Committee to announce on March 14 that it would postpone the discussion of the bill until the judicial bodies’ grievances were resolved.

The committee resumed discussion of the bill on Sunday after introducing some amendments.

The draft law originally stipulated that the president must choose the head of each judicial body from three nominations fielded by the institutions’ supreme council. Those nominated must be among the seven most senior aides to the previous head. The position is a four-year appointment, which may be cut short due to retirement. The recent amendments stipulate that the appointment may come from among the seven most senior aides, skipping over the institution’s recommendations if they are not proposed sixty days prior to the conclusion of the current head’s term, or if they don’t comply with the criteria.

During Monday’s session member of Parliament Alaa Abdel Moneim said that the bill is unconstitutional, threatens judicial independence and is intended to instigate conflict with the judicial bodies that rejected the bill.

Parliamentarian Ahmed Helmy al-Sherif, who initially submitted the bill, said that the Legislative and Constitutional Affairs Committee have implemented the constitution, adding that they sent written memos to every judicial body in January for consultation. According to Sherif, only the State Council responded, while the Supreme Judicial Council did not officially submit its response to the Parliament.

Aal responded to criticism of this process by highlighting that while consultation with judicial bodies is mandated, waiting for a response, or complying with it is not requisite.

Several judges from different judicial bodies were surprised by the swift approval of the bill in less than 24 hours. The State Council Judges Club announced its rejection of the bill, and voiced skepticism over the speed with which it was passed.

A statement issued by the club called the proposed legislation “a violation of the principle of judicial independence protected by the Constitution, a violation of the principle of separation between authorities and an infringement upon the right of judicial bodies to choose their heads.”

A judicial source, who requested anonymity, told Mada Masr that most of the judges knew in advance that the bill would be passed before the end of the judicial year, which falls on June 30. They stated that the bill intends to keep certain judges out of leading judicial appointments. Among them, according to the source, is Judge Anas Ali Abdallah Omara, who ruled to cancel all death penalties handed down to citizens based solely on evidence provided by national security investigations, affecting a number of cases involving the Muslim Brotherhood.

They added that the bill may also aim to prevent the appointment of Judge Yehia al-Dakroury, who ruled to invalidate the agreement transferring sovereignty of the two Red Sea islands Tiran and Sanafir from Egypt to Saudi Arabia. The two judges would be appointed as heads of the Court of Cassation and the Supreme Administrative Court if the seniority principle is applied.

The source believes that the way in which the bill was approved is enough to demonstrate that it lacks the simplest measures of impartiality.

Parliament has also approved all the articles included in the National Authority of Elections draft bill, with the exception of one article relating to the full judicial supervision of elections. The article was sent back to the Legislative and Constitutional Affairs Committee for reconsideration, before the law undergoes a final vote in the general assembly and is sent to the president for final approval.

The article stipulates that full judicial supervision of elections should end in 2024. While the parliamentary speaker supported the article, Many MPs requested the continued judicial supervision of elections. Among them were head of the Parliament’s Legislative and Constitutional Affairs Committee Mohamed Bahaa Abu Shaqa, and the head of the government-backed Alliance to Support Egypt coalition, the majority party in Parliament which rarely expresses disagreement with Aal.

Monday also saw the Parliament vote to introduce amendments to the contentious Protest Law. The new amendments are related to article 10 of the law which was deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Constitutional Court on December 2016. The amendment will undergo another vote, due to unmet quorum.

Article 10 pertains to the Interior Ministry’s powers to cancel protests if it believes that they may commit any violations of the law, rendering the stipulated permission to be acquired by the police ahead of the protest useless.

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