Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) sits in on the banks of the Nile, in the wealthy Cairo neighbourhood of Maadi.
Its soaring white structure houses a ruling council of 21 judges that represents the highest judicial power in Egypt. Since last year’s democratic uprising, military tanks have stood sentry outside, a constant symbol of the army’s continued power.
The court is supposed to be independent. But its decision to dissolve Egypt’s Islamist-led Parliament and allow Hosni Mubarak’s last prime minister to run for president suggest a far different reality: that the judiciary is working to protect the status quo – namely itself and the military – against democratic change. Judges have effectively displaced politicians as Egypt’s power-brokers, with the military’s apparent blessing.
The SCC was created by Egypt’s second president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, in 1969. For decades it was a self-perpetuating body with sitting judges nominating new members, which fostered a degree of independence from political forces. Fearing the court had become too assertive, Mr. Mubarak eventually tightened his control, increasingly exercising his right to make final appointments, including the crucial selection of chief justice.
Today, it is stacked with sympathizers of the ousted president who harbour deep suspicions of the Muslim Brotherhood, which won control of the Parliament earlier this year and whose candidate, Mohamed Morsi, is one of two contenders for president.
“The judges are certainly part of the elite. They do not subscribe to the Islamists’ political and social vision,” said Nathan J. Brown, a professor of political science at George Washington University. “They’re also afraid of the Islamists because there are just so many of them. They fear tyranny of the majority.”
Farouk Sultan, the court’s current chief justice, was appointed by Mr. Mubarak two years before being ousted from power. Even then, critics viewed him an army sympathizer and questioned the choice, arguing that Mr. Sultan’s background in military courts had nothing to do with the realm of constitutional law.
There have been growing signs of unease among the judiciary over the prospect of Islamist rule as the presidential runoff approached. Earlier this month the president of the 8,000-member association of Egyptian judges said they would forsake their neutrality in the election to prevent the Islamists from monopolizing power. The decision was seen as an implicit endorsement of candidate Ahmed Shafiq, Mr. Mubarak’s former prime minister.
“Egypt is falling. We won’t leave matters for those who can’t manage them, with the excuse that we’re not people of politics. No, we are people of politics,” said the association president, Ahmed el-Zend.
Last month, a committee of Egypt’s Parliament debated a proposal that would have sharply curtailed the SCC’s powers. Meanwhile, the ruling military empowered the court once again to select its own chief justice. Observers say the judges saw the writing on the wall. “They said ‘Look, the military gave us this and the parliament was threatening that,’ ” said Mr. Brown.