Egypt is gearing up for the final stages of a tumultuous transitional period under the rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and preparing to enter a new phase following a scheduled handover of government authority to a newly elected president at the end of June.
The much-anticipated presidential vote is scheduled to be held on 23 and 24 May to elect Egypt's first president since Hosni Mubarak was overthrown in a popular uprising one year ago. The man in charge of overseeing the poll is Farouk Sultan, the bespectacled, white-haired chair of the Supreme Constitutional Court and head of the Presidential Elections Commission.
Sultan was appointed by Mubarak to head the Supreme Constitutional Court in 2009 in a move that sparked controversy at the time due to his relatively modest judicial background, a lack of experience in constitutional law and a legal reputation among many as that of a regime loyalist with little independence from the executive.
“After the revolution it was expected that Sultan would be removed right away but he has remained in the same post Mubarak wanted him in,” says Nasser Amin, head of the Arab Center for the Independence of the Judiciary. “He represents a very big danger to the constitutional court and the presidential election.”
Sultan spent years serving in military and state security courts, sections of Egypt's judicial apparatus more renowned for their efficiency and usefulness in working to legalize the whims of the country’s rulers than any notion of due process.
When Mubarak tapped him to head the high court in 2009, Sultan was serving as the chief justice of the Cairo Southern Court, a primary court much further down Egypt's judicial hierarchy. He was also serving as the head of the commission supervising elections at professional syndicates, where he was embroiled in disputes with syndicate members and accused of hampering election procedures.
“Sultan was obstructing the elections process and some of these problems did not get solved until after the revolution,” says rights attorney Ahmed Seif al-Islam.
In the run-up to the Lawyers Syndicate elections in 2009, Sultan stripped Islamist lawyer and chairmanship candidate Mamdouh Nouh of his membership on the grounds that he had served a three-year prison sentence after being convicted by a military court in 1999. Nouh accused Sultan of being partisan, alleging he removed him from the race to boost the chances of the Mubarak regime’s preferred candidate. Nouh contested the decision and won a ruling to keep his syndicate membership, but said the court proceeding had eaten into his campaign time.
Sultan also raised concerns later in the election when he inexplicably delayed the announcement of the council seat winners, sparking accusations that the results may have been manipulated. A report compiled by the Egyptian Association for Community Participation Enhancement in 2009 expresses “concerns over delaying the board’s results, and the decision of the court president not to allow the civil society representatives in the ballot counting. Such actions raise questions about the electoral process and invites challenge to its results.”
“Sultan played a political role in Mubarak's regime and he dealt directly with the State Security Investigation Services,” Amin says, referring to the Egypt's notorious internal security agency. Due to his proficiency in impeding syndicate elections and fulfilling regime goals, Sultan was appointed by Mubarak to head the Supreme Constitutional Court to help usher his son, Gamal, into power in the scheduled 2011 presidential election, according to Amin.
Regardless of the motives behind Sultan's appointment, his profile fit into a larger pattern orchestrated by Mubarak to tame the Supreme Constitutional Court by bringing in a series of chief justices less likely to cause the regime trouble. The court had become a highly independent body in the 1980s and 90s, striking down more laws than it upheld. Around 2000, Mubarak abandoned the traditional practice of turning to the most senior member of the court for chief justice and instead began appointing chiefs from outside the court. Mubarak’s more recent appointees tended to be less confrontational, which helped bring the body more in line with the regime.
“You could say the Supreme Constitutional Court is a less independent, much less coherent body than it was a decade and a half ago,” says Nathan Brown, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.
Two days after Mubarak's resignation on 11 February, the SCAF dissolved Parliament and the constitution. On 30 March 2011, the military council issued a Constitutional Declaration that extended a practice mandated by the former (1971) constitution, whereby the chief justice of the Supreme Constitutional Court is, ex-officio, also the head of the Presidential Elections Commission. “Farouk Sultan will oversee the election process, he will announce the winner, he will do everything,” says attorney Khaled Abu Bakr, a member of the International Association of Lawyers.
Sultan held a televised news conference on 29 February to announce the timetable for the presidential election and stressed no international observers will be allowed to monitor the poll. Moreover, the decisions of the Presidential Elections Commission are beyond appeal, according to a controversial article of the Constitutional Declaration. Article 28 of the declaration stipulates that the results announced by the Presidential Elections Commission are final, carry the force of law and are not be subject to objections from any party.
“[Article 28] has no equal in the rest of the world,” writes best-selling Egyptian author and columnist, Alaa Al Aswany. “If you saw election tampering with your own eyes, recorded it and submitted the evidence to the commission, and the commission said there was no rigging, you would have no appeal, because the commission's word is final, irreversible and incontestable."
A fiery debate broke out in the People's Assembly over Article 28 in late February with a number of MPs demanding it be amended before the election takes place. “If the presidential election is held under Article 28, then the election of Egypt’s next president will be void,” said Socialist Popular Alliance Party MP Abul Ezz al-Hariry. “Preventing the challenge of any administrative decision is a violation of human rights.”
Egypt's presidential election season officially gets underway on 10 March, when the window opens for candidates to officially register for the race, marking another step in Egypt's rocky “transition.” Sultan, the man Mubarak controversially appointed three years ago, will be in charge of overseeing the process.
“The question of the president of the Supreme Constitutional Court is part of our larger struggle,” says Ashraf al-Baroudi, vice president of the High Court of Appeals. “In general, the revolution did not realize or accomplish its demands yet. We still have much to struggle for to change the personnel that are part of the old regime.”
This article was originally published in Jadaliyya.