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The Two New Judges in Morsi’s Cabinet -- by Nathan J. Brown and Mokhtar Awad

8th May, 2013

[Nathan J.Brown and Mokhtar Awad circulated an informal write up of the two new judges now entering the Egyptian cabinet, following the reshuffle on the 7th May, with Brown writing on Bagato (the new minister of parliamentary affairs) and Awad on Soliman (the new justice minister). After receiving this write, T2's advisor, H.A. Hellyer, requested a completed version as a submission to Tahrir Squared, which it is happy to produce below as exclusive content.  This brief description of the two ministers suggests that their appointments might have contradictory effects on the continuing conflict over legal and judicial issues in Egypt.]

 


 

Hatem Bagato is by now very widely, but not so deeply, known.  He is a well-known figure primarily because he has turned up in so many critical places in the past few years.  Yet, the imprint he leaves is more legal than political, meaning that in the hyper-politicized environment in Egypt today he comes across a bit like Woody Allen’s Zelig. He is notable not only for his ubiquity, but also for the way he seems to be moulded to any environment.

Bagato comes to the cabinet directly from the Commissioners Body of the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC). He had been briefly a justice on the main court but was returned to the SCC Commissioners Body – which  prepares cases for the main court under the terms of the 2012 constitution. In February and March of 2011, he was a member of the small committee drafting the constitutional amendments in February and March 2011, and throughout 2011 he was consulted and involved in some of the legal and constitutional negotiations. He was then a leading official and spokesman of the presidential elections commission; and unlike most justices of the SCC he has spoken to the press, generally to clarify decisions of the various bodies that he has been involved with.  

He has been variously described as an Islamist sympathizer, fulul (‘remnants (from the former regime)’), and pro-military.  My sense is that these all have some element of truth but when added together a different figure arises.

Bagato’s father was a general. It may have been such connections along with his background in constitutional law that placed him on the commission to work on the constitutional amendments back in February 2011. That body had a mixed composition, but it did have some notable figures with an Islamist inclination, including Tariq al-Bishri, a leading intellectual and legal figure, and Sobhi Saleh, a former Brotherhood parliamentarian.  Certainly I never have sensed any hostility on Bagato’s part to Islamists, which I increasingly do among some judges – but I never heard any sympathy either.

Bagato, who likes to talk about the fine point of legal texts, rather than abstract issues, was also reputed to be close to Faruq Sultan and Mamduh Mar`i, two former SCC chief justices who were widely regarded (fairly, I think) as judges the Mubarak presidency found useful. At the same time, my impression is that he worked well with justices on the SCC who were of a more liberal/leftist coloration and further that he is comfortable with some of the more ambitious rulings of the Court and an effective advocate for the SCC's positions and interests.  

In short: he is someone with a foot in every camp.  While he has sometimes drawn fire from various circles, he was not really in anybody's cross hairs, with the noted exception of Hazem Abu Ismail supporters, as Bagato was the public face of their favourite’s disqualification from the presidential race. My impression is that he had good working relationships across the political spectrum – I have heard prominent liberals and Islamists both quote him, treating him as thoughtful and trustworthy. The Brotherhood seems to have targeted him only briefly, around the time that the election commission he worked for disqualified Khairat al-Shater from the presidential race. When the Brotherhood singled out people on the SCC for criticism for that decision, it was more likely to be Faruq Sultan and then – with special bitterness - Tahani al-Gibali.)

My own personal impression is similar to that of the politicians who know him directly – he  is, above all, a legal figure and a judge. He may be a bit jollier and more engaging than most judges who are fairly reserved but he seems to be without strong affiliations in any particular direction.  

The strongest criticism that I have heard from anybody familiar with him was that he was playing all sides at once.  I would add an additional reservation of his work on my own – I think the March 2011 amendments served the transition process badly, though I think the haste under which he worked and the uncertain political conditions of the time made the errors understandable.

In the cabinet, he may serve to improve the connection between the cabinet and the Shura Council (they have sometimes pulled in surprisingly different directions) and perhaps will be a good source of how to avoid further entanglements with the SCC. In that sense, his appointment may be a sign that -- for now at least -- the Islamists are going to work on managing their judicial problems rather than launching a full frontal assault on the judiciary.  And that might be a good thing.


Judge Ahmed Mohamed Ahmed Soliman (believed to be 53 years of age) is the new minister of justice after former minister Ahmed Mekki submitted his resignation in late April. He received his masters in Sharia and Law in 1977 and worked as a prosecutor soon after. He was appointed deputy of the public prosecutor in Asyiut, Minya, and Beni Suef before becoming a judge in 1981.

He served as a judge in the Beni Suef, Qena, and Cairo Court of Appeal until 1992 before transferring as a judge to the Abu Dhabi Federal Court in the UAE. He returned from UAE in 1998 and worked as a judge in the Asyiut and Cairo Court of Appeal. From 2002 to 2004 he was the president of the Minya Judges club where he became active in the judicial independence movement. He was transferred a second time to the UAE in 2004 to work in the Institute for Training and Judicial Studies. While in the UAE, Soliman is believed to have helped support the judicial independence movement by fundraising, raising awareness outside of Egypt, and writing pro-independence articles. He served again as president of the Minya Judges club from June 2011 to present time, and also served as assistant to former justice minister Ahmed Mekki for judicial studies prior to his current position as minister.

It is reported that Soliman was also approached for the post in July 2012, but Ahmed Mekki was ultimately chosen. Soliman is considered to be a staunch opponent of Judge Ahmed El-Zind, current president of Egypt’s judges club.

In a September 2012 interview Soliman expressed his desire to reform the judiciary law and that judicial independence would be achieved by “severing the links between judges and the Justice Minister, so that there will be no sultan over them.” He also defended the government’s right and the legal basis for implementing emergency law when needed. He strongly denied that the then justice minister was tied to the Muslim Brotherhood, or that the minister served the MB’s agenda when directly asked.

In a January 2013 interview on Al-Jazeera, Soliman expressed that El-Zind has “implicated himself and judges in an enmity between them and the people.”  Soliman was also critical of the prosecutors’ strikes against the Morsi appointed public prosecutor, explicitly stating that it was a ‘conspiracy’ and saying that it was an ‘irresponsible action’. He has also stated that he opposes any strikes by judges and that he finds it illegal.

Soliman also claimed in the interview that the U.S. Embassy did not want the Egyptian constitution to see the light of day (which he finds to be one of the greatest constitutions in the world). He went further and said that the embassy pressured political parties and politicians to make sure the constitution would not come out.

It is currently being reported that Soliman opposed the November 22 constitutional declaration. Although it was reported that the Judges Club of Minya that he headed then opposed it, in a statement to El-Watan newspaper in late November 2012, Soliman said that “Egypt is targeted by the ex-presidential candidates” and justified the declaration due to this perceived targeting. He also criticized the judge’s strike in response to the November declaration.

Soliman was quoted yesterday as saying that his top priority as minister of justice will be the reform of the judiciary law. He has also been quoted as opposing the recent draft judiciary law amendments that would lower the age of retirement for judges. He also said that he will follow in the footsteps of Ahmed Mekki because Mekki is his “teacher.”

Soliman's appointment may stir controversy in the ranks of the public prosecutors for his staunch support of the Morsi appointed public prosecutor Talaat Abdallah. His young age may also prove problematic when dealing with more senior and influential judges. The post of minister of justice has traditionally been held by senior and well-known figures and the unorthodox appointment of a younger judge bypassing more senior judges may not be easily welcomed in the ranks of the judiciary. His unpopular views on disciplining striking judges and prosecutors and own personal feud with judge's club head Ahmed El-Zend may only further complicate the Morsi government's uneasy relationship with the judiciary.


 

Nathan J. Brown is professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University and nonresident senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Mokhtar Awad is a junior fellow in the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

 

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