The president, the prosecutor, and the press

Over the weekend in Egypt, as if the fighting that took place in Tahrir Square between supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood (or impostors) and their detractors was not enough, a major institutional type of Mortal Kombat also took place between, on the one side, President Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, and on the other, Prosecutor-General Abdel Meguid Mahmoud and the judicial establishment. On the latter’s side — out of convenience as much as principle, as Mahmoud is not a popular figure — were secular political parties who seized on this to denounce what they saw as the Brother-President’s all-out attack on the rule of law.

If you haven’t been following this story, here’s the lowdown.

On Wednesday, a verdict in the trial of the officials and former regime bigwigs alleged to be involved in the February 2–3, 2011 “Battle of the Camel”, one of the bloodiest episodes of the 2011 uprising, were acquitted. The public reaction was fury, partly at the judge who made the ruling but especially at prosecutors for doing such a poor job in preparing the case. The following day, Morsi asked Mahmoud to step down from his position and take the sinecure of a post as Egypt’s ambassador to the Holy See (one of the most prized posts in Egyptian diplomacy, apparently because there’s not too much work and yet you get to live in Rome). Mahmoud refused to step down, on the grounds that the president does not have the authority to sack him — only a judicial institution called the Supreme Judicial Council does. Opposition politicians and many luminaries of the judiciary condemned the move as a brazen attack on the independence of the judiciary — precisely at a time when tensions are already high between the judiciary and the Muslim Brotherhood, over a new judicial reform law and the part of the new constitution that will define the powers of the judiciary. Later, Mahmoud revealed that he has received threatening phone calls from the vice-president and senior Brotherhood figures, including hints that it would be a shame if his life was put in danger by popular fury. The president’s side initially holds its ground, but soon backtracks as the Judges’ Club holds a meeting and comes out saying sacking Mahmoud would be a coup against the independence of the judiciary. Within 48 hours, Morsi and Mahmoud meet, begin to downplay the entire episode as a misunderstanding — that Morsi was just making an innocent proposal, or that his intention was to protect Mahmoud, etc. Judges, in the meantime, say that there will be “no Tantawis in their rank”[1] and even pro-MB legal luminaries like Tarek al-Bishri condemn the whole episode.

The irony in all this is that sacking Mahmoud was a demand of revolutionary groups since just after Mubarak’s fall. But, either because Morsi did it in apparent contravention to the laws and traditions of the Egyptian judiciary (exactly how that is the case still escapes me, but I’m sure Nathan Brown will explain it all), or because it was seen as intolerable executive encroachment, it could not fly. Perhaps, overall, it was because this did seem like a brazen, over-confident attempt to leverage an unpopular verdict to get a man who, in recent months, had allowed many cases against the Muslim Brothers’ political interest (some of them absurd or frivolous, such as the case to judge on whether the Brotherhood is legal — does it matter when it party is definitely legal?) to get to court. And to send a message of toughness to the judiciary. On Mahmoud’s side, it appears what initially was an easy way to get out at a time when he has multiple cases against him and risked to face the revolutionary music became unfeasible when it became the center of attention. Quietly going to Rome is one thing, doing so in this manner is another. His calculus must have been that taking such an offer would be tantamount to an admission of guilt.

I thought it was worth recapping all this as I glanced at today’s headlines in the main Egyptian newspapers. I think the headlines tell us a little something about where the papers stand in today’s Egyptian political spectrum, and about their professionalism.

Government press

  • Al-Ahram (new editor is close to Brotherhood): The president reconsiders his decision, the prosecutor-general is maintained
  • Al-Akhbar: End of the prosecutor general crisis; The president cancels his decision to appoint him as ambassador
  • Al-Gomhouriya: Prosecutor general crisis: The law and legality triumph
  • Rose al-Youssef (formerly fiercely anti-MB): Prosecutor general crisis: Victory for rule of law

Private press

  • Al Masri al-Youm: Morsi reconsiders his decision; the prosecutor general wins
  • Al-Shorouk al-Gedid: The president of the republic loses his fight against the prosecutor general
  • Al-Tahrir (Anti-MB, pro-revolutionary): Justice comes out victorious in fight over prosecutor general

Partisan press

  • Al-Wafd (Anti-MB party): Morsi reconsiders his decision to sack the prosecutor-general
  • Al-Horreya wa al-Adala (Muslim Brotherhood newspaper): The president accepts a petition to maintain the prosecutor in his place[2]

  1. In reference to the sacking of army chief Hussein Tantawy on August 12, 2012.  ↩

  2. That headline appears to be a lie — by the newspaper and by the presidency.  ↩