The enemy’s enemy: the saga of General Prosecutor Abd el-Majid Mahmud

By: Tor Håkon Tordhol.

For more than a week now the recurring top-story of the Egyptian newspapers is the war of words and what really happened between the General Prosecutor and President Muhammed Mursi. The stakes are admittedly been high since it is the visible tip of the iceberg of an ongoing struggle with several dimensions. One way to see it is as the re-appearance of a struggle for judiciary independence against the influence of the executive (which is now also legislative) branch of government. Alternatively, it is possible to frame it in the continuing struggle of the fulul – the remains of the old regime – to resist the increasing “brotherhoodisation” (‘akhwanat) of the state, i.e. a fight for control of state institutions. Yet a third view eclipses this as a broader struggle between secular and Islamist forces in Egyptian society at large. Together they make for an interesting illustration of the dynamics of Egyptian politics at this point in time.

A modern day Egyptian saga

The exact details of what happened are not completely clear as additional information and fresh rumours are reported every day. At this point though, the events seemed to have unfolded something like this: The story of Abd al-Majid Mahmud first broke in the newspapers on last Thursday, the 11th of October. The immediate background was the acquittal the day before of all the defendants of “the Battle of the Camel”-case. The reason for the acquittal was the lack of trustworthy evidence provided by the prosecution. Of course, this would be (and should be) a valid reason in any functioning democracy. The problem however is the emerging pattern of lack of justice for Mubarak’s regime and henchmen, all of which are due to insufficient evidence. This case is utterly compounded by the fact that Abd al-Majid himself is a Mubarak-appointee, in office since 2006.

The recurring patterns of acquittals and lack of justice has caused the Abd al-Majid Mahmud himself to come under closer scrutiny and calls for his immediate removal from office has frequently featured as a demand of the revolution. With an anti-Brotherhood demonstration already scheduled the following Friday (12th of October) under the slogan of “kashaf al-hisab” (reveal the results) to protest the slow progress on key issues under Mursi, the decision to leak the news of General Prosecuor Mahmud’s “promotion” to the position of Egypt’s ambassador in the Vatican was made ostensibly in order to calm the crowds. This decision though was to explode in the president’s face.

The following day newspapers reported that Abd al-Majid would not leave his office, but rather “heroically” stay on in the face of executive power meddling in judicial affairs. As there are only three ways in which a General Prosecutor may actually be removed from office – agreed to promotion, voluntary withdrawal, or retirement – Mursi suddenly found himself with a headache he was unable to cure. As Mahmud refused the “promotion” Mursi was ostensibly without powers to do anything. Simultaneously a discussion unfolded on whether Mursi was in fact in his right to offer a promotion in the first place, or if this was the responsibility of the Minister of Justice, the implication of course being that President Mursi was abusing his power in trying to rid himself of a bothersome member of the judiciary.

On Saturday Mursi retracted, and Mahmud was to stay in office. But by now this personal confrontation between an official of the Mubarak state, and an Islamist President was fast accruing significance far beyond the original issue at hand. Judges, already anxious of losing previous gains of independence (and power) vis-à-vis the Egyptian executive, rallied to the General Prosecutor’s side and ostensibly a battle for judicial independence ensued.

Developments were further compounded by events on the street where the Brotherhood had mobilised for a demonstration of its own on Friday. The official reason given for the demonstration was to protest the acquittal of the “Battle of the Camel”-defendants, but soon after it began, quite another agenda seemingly came to the fore. The brothers tore down the stage set up by the Popular Current of Hamdeen Sabahi and tried to push the secular protesters off Tahrir Square. Events quickly turned violent after that, and the standoff lasted until the senior leadership gave orders for a retreat and the continuation of their protests outside the High Court building at Is’af Square (Al-Masry al-Yawm, Monday 15th of October). In the aftermath, the leadership admitted it was a mistake to mobilise the demonstration, but to the secular demonstrators it was yet more evidence of the brothers’ intention to dominate Egyptian public life.

The following week, the saga continued with further disclosures in the papers. Al-Masry al-Yawm reported on Sunday (14th of October) that Mahmud had been presented to the Vatican as the next ambassador 15 days before the news broke. The same day though, the official story that was also reported was that Mahmud in a meeting with the president had actually accepted the post, but later retracted at the instigation of judges worried about the dangerous precedent for executive interference this would represent. However, an alternate version read that he agreed to step down in return for not being investigated for his own alleged crimes. And a third version stated he had demanded to be ambassador in an Arab country rather than the Vatican. Regardless of the exact details of what happened, his change of heart brought about a standoff that by now was spinning out of control.

Abd al-Majid Mahmud in 3D

In some ways, the events can be interpreted as part of the fight for judicial independence against a state executive that has historically not been shy to meddle in court cases or in the judiciary at large. Replacing overly zealous judges and transferring court cases to military tribunals were but some of the strategies employed by the previous regime. At the same time, the judiciary itself has been widely viewed as a (legitimate) force checking the worst excesses of power abuse of the previous regime.  The so-called Judges’ Intifada of 2005 is a case in point. Judges themselves enacted this logic, with demonstrations and declarations of support for the General Prosecutor defending the independence of the judiciary branch of power. Arguably, it reached its high point when Mahmud declared his willingness to sacrifice himself for this cause on Monday (al-Masry al-Yawm, 15th of October).

However the degree of independence that this sector of the state did in fact attain, has contributed also to a high degree of separation from society. This case can be interpreted as a symptom of such a deeper structural problem. At present, the judiciary resembles something of an insulated and self-perpetuating fiefdom, eagerly watching out for its own interests outside the oversight any other, even democratically elected, branch of government. This is a recipe for further nepotism in a governmental institution that sorely needs accountability and fresh blood. In a system of checks and balances, also the judicial branch is supposed to be subject to control by the other two.

And yet the same underlying attitude is visible in other issues as well. The High Court itself, in opposing the part of the constitutional draft concerning the judiciary, bases this opposition in exactly the same understanding. Though, as one commentator so poignantly pointed out, the High Court is subject to the constitution, and not vice versa. The underlying issue, in other words, is: where do healthy judicial independence end and become a powerful, self-perpetuating institution with interests of its own?

Such vested interests of an established state institution then comes into conflict with the brothers attempt to impose control. The fact is that much of the state apparatus remain hostile to its new leadership (Samuli Schielke, 15th of October). Thusly, the “brotherhoodisation” is a project with two sides to it: the fulul attempting to maintain control over their interests, whereas the Muslim Brotherhood wanting to assume a firmer grip of the executive bureaucracy. Quite frankly, to a certain extent the brotherhood’s point of view is easy to understand. The leadership remains very aware that in order to keep their support they have to deliver now that they are in power, and they have made many promises indeed. Doing this requires a bureaucratic apparatus not only efficient, but also loyal in implementing reforms. This project then, is the second dimension in which this saga was caught up.

However, more than just the fulul are worried about their positions. Already, the brothers’ zeal in replacing the old guard with their new causes increased suspicion among revolutionaries. So much so, that instances occur where they rather side with the old against the Muslim Brotherhood. One example is the case of Hassan Hamdy, the chairman of al-Nadi al-Ahli, Cairo’s and Egypt’s largest football club. Suspected of corruption he is currently under investigation by the Unlawful Gains Authority (Jihaz al-Kasab Ghayr al-Mashru’). However, at a meeting of different factions opposing Hamdy it was decided not to withdraw trust as they feared that the Brotherhood would take advantage of the situation and assume control of the club (al-Masry al-Yawm, Saturday 13th of October). This is, ironically, the very same Hamdy who when previously investigated for corruption under Mubarak, had his case suspended by General Prosecutor Abd al-Majid Mahmud. This case as well as that of Mahmud, reveals the extent of suspicion among the revolutionaries towards the Brotherhood’s agenda. Siding with the old guard displays a deep mistrust, with which the Brotherhood themselves have to tackle if they want to keep their revolutionary legitimacy and be given the benefit of the doubt.

It also points to the third dimension: how the battle between the Brotherhood on one side and vested interests of the state and the fulul, is often framed as part of a larger struggle between Islamism and secularism. This particular narrative is the seemingly be all, end all of Egyptian politics nowadays; the dominating issue being the constitution in the making. And although “brotherhoodisation” is not necessarily islamisation, such is the force of this narrative that even staunch supporters of the revolution completed stunning u-turns virtually overnight in the case of Abd al-Majid Mahmud. Finding a way out of this discourse might prove hard. The debate on the constitution proceeds with the only clear tendency being increased radicalisation on all sides and an expected referendum which has the potential to upset any and all political processes. Simultaneously, political factions are working hard to consolidate in anticipation of the next parliamentary elections, and few seem willing to make hard compromises unpopular with their perceived constituencies.

In this atmosphere of polarisation little significance is given to the shared interests of all parties involved. However, it seems that the narrative in ascendance at the moment is that of secularism/Islamism, which might have the power to turn old enemies – the fulul and the secular revolutionaries – into friends. The question is: at what cost?