Bastawissi at AUC

An arabist.net reader was at Judge Hisham Bastawissi's AUC lecture last night and shared impressions with me. I regret not attending.

The man was brilliant, first-class public speaker. Eloquent and utterly scathing in a gentlemanly-legalistic sort of way. He was supposed to speak on Articles 76 and 77 but really focused more on issues of basic human rights and freedoms, and the kafkaesque structures of governance in Egypt. Started off with a fairly stirring defence of why judges must engage issues of concern to the people and had to defend basic freedoms because the judiciary was essentially the only independent institution left in a position to do so, and while judges could not in their capacity as judges comment on political issues, no one can take away their freedom as individuals to think and express themselves, and the taboos preventing judges from connecting with the people were finally broken in the past year and that was a good thing. He spoke about different articles in the constitution and international legal conventions that supported the independence of judges, why the Judges Club has the freedom of a syndicate and does not come under the law on societies/associations, and listed the ways in which regime efforts to deny judges the right to free association ran counter to all these norms. He didn't spare his fellow judges who had agreed to cooperate with the regime in the "supervision" of elections and be willing accomplices to large-scale fraud, and noted ironically that this was not considered a violation of judicial neutrality while speaking out on human rights and free expression issues was.

On the topic of elections, he spoke at length on the importance of real, independent judicial supervision, and tore apart the regime's argument that external or foreign observers would undermine the autonomy of the Egyptian judiciary, saying in fact that he welcomed such supervision and the judges themselves agreed to it. He remarked that the parts of the electoral process that should be secret - i.e. the secret ballot - were the most open to public knowledge and interference in Egypt, and in a bizarre reversal, the process became more secretive instead of more transparent as it went up the chain of authority, with vote-counting in secret and the declaration of results in secret, and noted ironically the Minister of Justice (if I heard correctly) was the only human being who really knew the actual vote count.

He insisted that Article 41 must be defended above all, and that amendments to Article 76 wouldn't have much meaning if basic individual rights continued to be violated as they have been. He listed random arrests, limits on freedom of expression and the press, and the emergency law, and sarcastically observed that the government had got so attached to its freedom to pick people up and arrest them at random that it wanted to pass laws on terrorism under which only they could decide who was a terrorist, to replace the emergency law they had promised to repeal. He spoke strongly against the use of military courts for purposes that were not strictly military, even for the trials of military personnel accused of common crime. Mentioned that the government wished to copy the Patriot Act from the US, and noted that it only worked in the US to the extent that it worked because there were other institutions to protect freedoms and a working democratic process; he ribbed the government for taking what was worst from each foreign constitution or country, including (I think - I didn't catch this entire section very well) the presidential system of government and constitutional court from France, and something else from Russia - rather than what was good, like democratic institutions.

He also skewered the regime's claim to put economic reform before political reform and the common claim that it was ensuring transparency and a favourable environment for business, by noting that surely business and investors would want greater judicial independence and transparency so that their interests could be guaranteed, and would rather not be subjected to the changing whims of the regime. He also lashed out at corruption and authoritarianism (and used the word "diktatura" a fair bit, which had the scribes furiously taking notes) as barriers to progress, and asked to what extent the government was actually able to look out for the people, given widespread corruption and pollution and even the chickens were diseased, etc etc.

He made a couple of interesting rhetorical moves towards the end. One was to trace the development of the Egyptian judiciary and judicial independence as part of the march of national independence and dignity, noting that the colonialist argument that Egyptians could not rule themselves was disproved and while early on (in the 1940s?) there were both foreign and Egyptian judges working in Egypt, the judiciary was soon Egyptianised and there was no excuse any more for denying it. Then he argued that the Judges Club derived its legitimacy from the fact that the people supported it, and from recognition by international institutions and agreements to which Egypt was a signatory (including the EU for institutions and some Milan convention for judicial independence), essentially telling the regime that they were not the ones who gave the judges their authority. He also remarked that even God, when he sent down his Word, accepted that people had the right to interpret it for themselves, but this regime did not want to grant people the most basic intellectual independence to interpret laws (I think he referred to a specific set of legislations, I forget which) differently from the party line. He then accused the government of acting as though they were the only ones capable of thinking, and the only ones who could be trusted with reason, and everybody else was only capable of obeying, and behaving as though only they could grant freedoms to the Egyptian people, even though freedoms came with being a human being.

There was some other stuff about working with civil society, and defending the freedom of the press, and journalists getting locked up, too, I just don't remember the details. It was a long speech, over an hour. He got a good reception, lots of knowing laughter and nodding along with many of his points, and lots of applause for a few minutes at the end. I didn't stay for the Q&A because the first few questions were sort of silly, though someone did challenge him for risking losing his neutrality. I can see why the civil society folks and democratization people and activists love this man, it would be difficult to find a more eloquent champion for their cause.
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.