The conduct of the courts and judges in Egypt during the past three years stands out for me as a critical element to watch as the country continues its tortuous route to a pluralistic constitutional democracy. If an independent, professional judiciary that checks autocratic tendencies and upholds citizen rights succumbs to the corrosive ways of military- or theocracy-dominated autocracy, Egyptians will anticipate only grief in their political future. The conduct of elements of the Egyptian judiciary in recent months has shocked me and millions of others across the Arab world. Most of us are despairing about what to do, for nothing seems able to budge Egypt from its current course. So here is my “Open Letter to the Judges of Egypt,” hoping naively that their sense of Egypt’s pride of place in modern Arab history might still prod them to snap out of their destructive course and help right the ship of state.
To my brothers and sisters, the judges of Egypt:
I greet you from Beirut and the Levant, a region that shares with your Egypt many impressive historical legacies related to the development of two significant dimensions of any healthy society: a vibrant press sector and a respected judiciary. So it is with immense shock and sadness—disbelief, actually—that I and hundreds of millions of Arabs have watched in recent months as you seem intent on destroying both of these pillars, as you transform your Egyptian courts into spectacles of farcical justice. What in the world are you doing? What do you think you will achieve by arresting professional journalists and accusing them of being terrorists? Or of sentencing to death over 500 and 600 people at a time after laughable ceremonies not worthy of being called a “trial” except in some children’s cartoons? Or of sentencing to death or imprisoning thousands of Islamist and secular human rights activists so as to empty the public sphere of any opinion or shade of color that does not blindly align with the views of the military-and money-led power structure that continues to rule most of the Arab region?
I write you as a fellow Arab citizen who has always admired Egypt’s many achievements in ancient and modern times, while acknowledging its shortcomings as short-term challenges that would be overcome in due course. Yet when I watch your judiciary today succumb to the intolerant and violent ways of the military rule that has destroyed much of the promise of the modern Arab world, I am saddened by the degradation of your professionalism, and frightened by its consequences.
Your harsh and arbitrary treatment of journalists simultaneously degrades and could ultimately destroy and bury the two most critical pillars of any credible transition to a democratic and pluralistic political governance system: an independent judiciary and freedom of expression. All the other ailments we suffer—military encroachment on civilian authority, corruption, family rule, bloated bureaucracies, technical incompetence, foreign interference—can all be overcome or mitigated if our society enjoys a credible, independent judiciary and freedom of expression for the individual and via the mass media. Why are you single-handedly trying to destroy both of these forces that can alert society to its own abuses?
I cannot know your motives or the feelings that drive you to act as you do. I assume you feel that you are acting in the best interests of the people of Egypt. Well, the evidence from your conduct—and like you, I also act professionally on the basis of clear and credible evidence—suggests that you are pushing Egypt towards a catastrophic abyss of misgovernance, intolerance, abuse of power and mass pauperization and national humiliation. At this delicate moment when Egypt needs to find ways to engage all its citizens in democratic politics and economic rejuvenation, benefit from the ideas of all ideological quarters in the land, and replace the last three years of one-sided power grabs with a more open system of non-violent political contestation, you seem determined to destroy the crucial roles of the judiciary and the free press in these processes. Why do you do this?
Is this the legacy you want to leave behind for future generations? Do you want your grandchildren to read that in 2011-14, at a moment of epic national rebirth, you, the judges of Egypt, were the purveyors of autocratic gluttony, and the guarantors of the muzzled press, the silenced citizen and the castrated civil society? That you championed bondage over freedom? That you turned a blind eye to the killings of thousands of your own citizens? That you made a mockery of the rich tradition of the integrity of the Egyptian judiciary? That you made Egypt an international joke? That you took away from Egyptians and all others who admire it in the region and the world the invaluable elements that Egypt inspires in us all—pride, integrity, respect and hope? That you did all this at a moment when hundreds of millions of Arab men and women still looked to Egypt, and to you in particular, with the anticipation that in the exercise of public power in the modern Arab world, decency would eventually triumph over dictatorship, and citizen rights would triumph over the rule of entire countries by individual families and their guards?
What are you doing? Why are you doing this?
Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.
Copyright © 2014 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global