It is a remarkable development that in a country like Egypt, ruled autocratically by a former military officer, members of the judiciary and strongly anti-regime Islamic activists find themselves on the same side in the war the dictator is waging to stay in power and pass it to his son. Yet that is exactly what has been happening since the Ikhwan al-Muslimeen – fielding its candidates as independents – won an unprecedented number of seats (though not a majority) in last year's parliamentary elections, and judges later accused the government of rigging them. The judges' accusation supports the widely held view that the Ikhwan would have secured total electoral victory had the polls been free and fair. It has also put to rest the USgovernment's claim that it has brought democracy to the Middle East by prevailing to introduce political reforms.
The independence of the judiciary is a vital requirement of just and democratic rule, as without it governments can be in full control of the political process and can get away with fraud in presidential and parliamentary elections, as president Hosni Mubarak has been doing since he came to power in 1981 after the assassination of his predecessor. In recent years, the main thrust of Mubarak's political machine has been to deny the Ikhwan – and, too a lesser extent, secular opponents – political power and influence, using the law, the security forces and the judiciary to do so.
In early 1995, for instance, the government began to take steps to isolate the Ikhwan and to curb its political influence in the run-up to that year's parliamentary elections. The Ikhwan, which was denied legal recognition as a political party, could only field candidates as independents, but that was not enough for the government. It proceeded to arrest several of its leading members, and Mubarak and the minister of the interior claimed that there was evidence of links between the movement and "Islamic extremists": a feeble attempt to destroy the Ikhwan's reputation as a "moderate" Islamic group. The government also acted at the same time to curb the influence of Islamic groups within professional organisations. It accorded the judiciary wide powers to intervene in union elections and to prevent members of the Ikhwan from standing.
Mubarak has probably always thought that he could rely on the judiciary to do his dirty work for him, although some Egyptian judges have been known to act independently or have called for judicial independence. But the current rebellion by two senior judges, Hisham Bastawisi and Mahmoud Mekki, and the strong line he has taken against them, show that his confidence in the judiciary has been shaken. It is true that there is a pro-reform Egyptian Judges' Club and that the two men have been leading its call for real independence of the judiciary. But the judges' real bite came when they publicly dismissed the recent elections as fraud-ridden and untenable; this condemnation did not come during a judicial hearing and was welcomed by political opponents of the regime.
The government acted quickly by means of the Supreme Judicial Council, which is controlled by the ministry of justice, and opened disciplinary proceedings against both for bring int the judiciary into disrepute. The charge against them was that they had "tarnished the image of the judiciary" by publishing a blacklist of pro-government judges who were allegedly involved in rigging the last legislative elections. Both Bastawisi and Mekki denied the allegations. The first hearing was the occasion of expressions of huge popular support for the two judges, with hundreds of supporters gathering outside the building, only to be attacked by the security forces. When the hearing was adjourned the two men were kept in custody instead of being released.
At the second hearing, on May 18, an even larger crowd of protestors gathered outside. Police and security officers again moved against them. At least 240 members of the Ikhwan al-Muslimeen were arrested. The movement said that 180 of its members were also injured. The judges were supported not only by Islamic activists but also by secularists. In the event, one judge was freed and the other one reprimanded.
In response to all this, Ahmed Nadif, the prime minister, announced that he was determined to prevent the Ikhwan from exploiting its 88 seats in parliament to form a "parliamentary group"; he even described it as a "secret group". But the Ikhwan responded with defiance, announcing that it was determined to continue its demand for the introduction of political reforms by all available means. In a statement on May 23, it accused the government making false claims of introducing political reforms, and insisted that those claims have now been shown to be blatantly untrue. As the Ikhwan is the first movement to call for reforms in Egypt, it will continue "to back the honourable judges in their battle for judicial independence" and for the exposure of electoral frauds. The movement also commented on the visit to America by Mubarak's son, Jamal, saying that he "only represented himself".
The Ikhwan has said emphatically that it is opposed to the inheritance of political power. This is a reference to the fact that Jamal, who heads the political section of the ruling party, is widely believed to be officially, though secretly, the appointed successor-in-waiting to Mubarak. Both Mubarak and Jamal deny this, but few people in Egypt appear to believe them. Certainly his recent discreet visit to Washington, which nevertheless caught the attention of the international media, was interpreted as an attempt to discuss with president Bush his proposed inheritance of power when his father leaves office.
But Jamal's visit was not the only embarrassing revelation as the crackdown on demonstrators was taking place. US government officials publicly defended the annual US military and economic aid to Egypt – amounting to US$60 billion (£31.5 million sterling) since 1979 – despite demands from Congress for a re-evaluation. Although he admitted that there are "concerns" about the pace of reforms, David Welch, assistant secretary of state, said that Egypt's role as a partner fighting terrorism, in allowing US overflights to Iraq, and in pursuing peace between Israel and the Palestinians, is "irreplaceable".
The unprecedented coordination of action by the Ikhwan, Egyptian secularists and Egyptian judges is a welcome development against a dictator serving Western interests. What remains to be seen is whether they can succeed together in turning it to their country's and their people's advantage.