Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 04/2012

Egypt's Judges in a Revolutionary Age

Nathan J. Brown

February 2012

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace


Egypt’s tumultuous uprising of 2011 was about many things, but among the most central was a demand by legions of political activists and large crowds of mobilized citizens that public authority in the country be reconstructed to operate in a clearly accountable manner, fully governed by the rule of law. Egyptian judges might therefore be expected to look upon the post-uprising environment as a time when they can finally realize a vision that they have been articulating for a generation in the face of an imperious and impervious presidency: A state ruled by law in which they will be insulated from political pressures and private interests, providing full autonomy to individual judges and to the judiciary as a body to issue decisions that will be respected and implemented by all the agencies of the Egyptian state. Eventually everybody might get what they want. But in the short run, judges have hardly found themselves in a sacrosanct position in the wake of the Egyptian revolution. Instead, they are politically exposed and uncertain of their future, with some concerned not only for their institutional autonomy but even for their physical security. An effort to legislate the demands for an independent judiciary in the form of a new judicial law has embroiled them in internal battles and external rivalries. Over the long term, the effort will nevertheless bear some fruit, since support for judicial independence now reaches the whole length of the political spectrum. Judges will likely obtain some version of the autonomy they seek. But the political implications of this step are far less clear than its proponents anticipate: the independence of the judiciary—as proposed legislation currently conceives it—may form part of a trend toward balkanizing the Egyptian state in a manner that will provide for a more liberal and pluralistic order but also one that is less coherent and democratic than Egyptians currently realize.