The Biggest Problem In Egypt Nobody is Talking About

All attention on Egypt is focused on the power struggle between the executive and the military. Meanwhile, the country desperately needs a judiciary that can harmonize the values of an incredibly heterogeneous population. A coherent system of justice is absolutely essential for Egyptian development, stabilization, and prosperity – but you wouldn't know that from following the news.

The past few weeks have been filled with stories about the recent demonstrations in Egypt, former President Mohamed Morsi’s struggle to maintain power, and the military’s ultimatum. After one of the largest protests in the history of Egypt took over Tahrir Square and the surrounding streets and bridges, the armed forces put Morsi under house arrest, and leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood were detained. Meanwhile, figures from the opposition, civil society, and the military took over interim positions.

American and European media outlets are depicting the political transition as a simple game between the military and the executive. Reading the headlines, the articles, and opinion pieces, all you hear about are the people in the street, the military, and what Morsi’s worried face looked like during his final speech. It seems like a fairly simple scenario, a tug-of-war between the army and the incumbent government.

Intense debate about whether this was a coup or a revolution is fair. But focusing only on the Muslim Brotherhood and the armed forces keeps attention on the executive branch of government at a time when judicial reform is essential to a stable and democratic Egypt.

In December, a constitution that empowered Morsi's government – and hindered the powers of judges and minorities – was passed via a referendum in which only 33% of people participated. In April, Morsi decided to use his powers to take on the judiciary. The executive passed a law that forced the retirement of 25% of Egypt’s judges and prosecutors, whose numbers were cut down to less than 10,000 by simply lowering the retirement age.  

Following opposition by the Judges’ Club, a leading advocacy group representing over 90% of Egypt’s judges, Ahmed Mekki, the minister of justice and supporter of former president Hosni Mubarak, decided to resign. While he was politically opportunistic, Mekki was one of the few remaining moderate reformists in Morsi’s cabinet, and was responsible for monitoring the judicial budget and ensuring judicial compliance. This measure represented one last strike against what should have become the most stable branch of government for years to come.

Judge Ahmed el-Zind, Leader of the Egypt's Judges' Club, speaking last April

As in most contemporary systems of checks and balances, Egypt’s judiciary is supposed to be independent from the government. The 1972 constitution already infringed on judicial authority, but not as much as the one established under Morsi. For the past year, Egypt has carried on without a strong judiciary. Without one, the people will never be truly protected under a satisfactory system of law.

A coherent system of justice that can harmonize the values of an incredibly heterogeneous population is absolutely essential for Egyptian development, stabilization, and prosperity. The media needs to shift the debate to a more intelligent and relevant conversation about what Egyptians really want and need. Egypt has some of the most accomplished and well-educated judges and lawyers in the region; the human capital is there. Unless Egypt's legal system is developed and established according to domestic notions of justice, the population will always be harmed by the tumultuous political cycles of its government.