CAIRO (AP) — Egypt's judges are up in arms over a draft law expanding the president's control of the judiciary, explaining on Sunday that the bill would undermine their independence and violate the principal of separation of powers.
Speaking at a news conference, judges labelled the bill as "suspicious" and "unconstitutional."
The bill, whose first reading was rushed through Parliament last week with uncustomary speed, empowers the president to ultimately pick the country's top judges from three nominees put forward by each of the judiciary's councils and courts. Currently, the most senior judges automatically get the top jobs.
"We fully respect and appreciate the legislative branch and believe that it has a discretionary authority ... however, this discretionary authority doesn't mean in any way the presence of an authoritarian power," Samir al-Bahy, deputy head of Egypt's State Council, told the news conference. The State Council is one of Egypt's judicial authorities.
Judges believe the draft law is tailored to prevent specific judges from presiding over top courts and may be linked to a pair of high-profile rulings that annulled an agreement to transfer two strategic Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia signed a year ago. President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi and his government insist the islands are Saudi, but the agreement sparked the largest anti-government street demonstrations since el-Sissi took office in 2014, when thousands took to the streets in April last year. Hundreds were detained, but were mostly released later.
The news conference was held just hours after a Cairo court ruled to block decisions by two courts, including the Supreme Administrative Court, to annul the agreement on the islands of Tiran and Sanafir. Sunday's ruling would be appealed on the grounds that the court had no jurisdiction over the issue, according to lawyers opposed to the transfer of the islands.
"The executive authority is behind (the bill)," constitutional expert Essam al-Islamboly told the news conference, calling it a "constitutional crime."
The dispute over the bill between the judiciary and Parliament, a 596-seat chamber packed with supporters of el-Sissi, could potentially develop into a constitutional crisis with possible consequences for the government's stability.
The judges said they intended to take escalatory measures unless the bill was withdrawn, but they declined to give specifics.
The dispute has dominated the Egyptian media in recent days with several columnists warning of dire consequences if the bill was passed and calling on el-Sissi to defuse the crisis.