March 18, 2011

Institutional Overview: The Legal Community

For the most part, the Western media spotlight has aimed at a technologically enabled, younger generation as the primary movers of the revolution. However, as we’ve shown, there are many important and well defined institutions that were critical in creating the political openings necessary for revolution the thrive. These groups, endowed with legitimacy and infrastructure, will be critical in building new and improved governance systems. With a strong basis in the rule of law, Egypt’s legal community is one such institution.

Under the Mubarak regime, the legal system was corrupted, preventing judges and lawyers from exercising their ostensible authority to curb the government’s abuse of power. Yet despite decades under such an autocratic governing style, Egyptian society still benefits from a robust community of legal practitioners. This community, frustrated by these political challenges, has been a consistent source of demands for political reform.

In recent years, the legal community has been increasingly vocal and better organized. In March 2006, nearly 1,000 judges demonstrated for full judicial independence and against state harassment of those who had criticized the 2005 elections. This sparked a series of protests that spring, many of which were violently suppressed by police forces. Lawyers in Egypt have also been actively calling for change. In the summer of 2010, after two lawyers were unjustly prosecuted for ‘disrespecting a state prosecutor’, 100,000 lawyers across the country walked out of courtrooms in a general protest to demand improved standards of fairness in the justice system.

Such examples point to the years of organizing work that culminated in a broad political agenda for reform. The work of groups like the legal community and the labour organizers outlined earlier, created critical cracks in the power of the regime, ultimately leading to a successful revolution. Given this important pre-revolution role, we sought to understand what this community’s continued function would be in the post-revolution transition period.

A day at the national lawyers’ syndicate (or bar association) in Cairo proved illuminating. Lawyers’ syndicates serve as the primary organizing body for Egypt’s lawyers, and the headquarters in Cairo oversees all chapters nationwide. Here, we spoke with an assorted group, from renowned human rights attorney Mamdouh Ismail to an Egyptian-American lawyer who had returned to Egypt to participate in his homeland’s transformation. We witnessed a roiling debate that spilled out from cramped meeting rooms into the lobby and courtyard of the majestic but decrepit headquarters. Dozens of men dressed in Western-style suits and clutching assorted papers, folders, and briefcases moved in one messy and ever-growing mass. Voices were raised, fingers were pointed, and dignities were insulted. As it turns out, competing factions were arguing over whom the syndicate should appoint as its new leadership. The previous executive body had recently been run out for their ties to Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, affiliations from which they benefited unfairly.

This dialogue was echoed at a small regional lawyers’ syndicate in the Lower Egyptian city of Damanhur, where we found groups of lawyers huddled in similarly heated discussions. Frustrated by rampant corruption that saw an alleged 90 percent of their annual legal fees siphoned off, the lawyers of Damanhur were also struggling to appoint new leadership without ties to the hand-selected cabal that had previously sacrificed their interests for that of the regime.

The transitions the lawyers’ syndicates are undergoing are reflective of a larger trend across Egypt. In the psychological revolution of the post-Mubarak era, institutions large and small are determined to purge themselves of traces of the old regime. This has led to waves of ‘micro-revolutions’, staged by individuals and organizations at the local, state, and national levels who are desperate for a clean break from the toxic governance structures of the past. Complicity in corruption, they insist, will no longer be tolerated. In many instances, including the legal community, these shifts are being driven by younger generations desperate to change the rules of the game.

As with all democratic processes, this transformation is complex and positive outcomes are in no way guaranteed. Forces aligned with the previous regime extend beyond individuals — they are nested in institutional structures. Internal forces for change will continue to face robust opposition from the establishment powers who benefited from, and thus structured their institutions to serve, the status quo.
Established institutions such as Egypt’s legal community are at the heart of the political transformation now underway.

Mini-revolutions will continue to ripple through these organizations as internal reformers push out leader’s that were tainted by the corruption of the previous regime. These internal change agents need political, economic and organizational support to cement their gains and strengthen the democratic capacity of their important institutions. Groups seeking to encourage progressive reform in Egypt would do well do identify and enable the efforts of such actors. Their success will in many ways determine how far systemic reform advances as a result of the initial revolution.

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