Egypt’s Top Judge

My program was fortunate enough a few weeks ago to secure a meeting with Egypt’s top judge, Zakaria Abdel Aziz, head of the Judges Club. The Club is an institution to which all Egyptian judges belong, a type of judicial union/syndicate in Egypt, though I am not sure its exact legal status. Regardless, Abdel Aziz came to speak to us about his experience leading this group, his unprecedented legal opposition to the government (Unlikely Reformers: Egyptian Judges Challenge the Regime), and about women’s legal issues in Egypt, an Egyptian man just being put in jail for sexual harassment in a landmark case(Egyptian Gets Jail for Sex Assault in Milestone Case).

Abdel Aziz began by giving us an interesting history of the Judges Club. He talked about when it was formed, how it works, and how it has historically dealt judicially with Egyptian politics, through times of both relative freedom and of intense political oppression. He was supposed to also speak to us about women’s issues in Egypt, but after giving the history of the Club, instead opened the floor up to questions. A student asked about the relationship between Egyptian law and Islamic law, called Sharia. A very good and fair question, as Egypt’s law is commonly known to be a mix of French civil law as a result of France’s colonization of Egypt, and elements of Sharia law, as Egypt is a Muslim country. Apparently the common knowledge in this case is wrong, as the judge explained that Sharia has nothing to do with Egyptian law. This is plainly false. Even my professor was surprised by this answer.

Abdel Aziz

The judge then went on, frankly to an astonished audience, explaining how although Egypt does not follow Sharia law, it is the best and most advanced type of judicial system and, yes I am serious, would even be a good system for the United States to adopt. He explained that the Jews failed morally under laws given to them in the Torah, and hence God sent another messenger to his people, Jesus, to give them new laws to follow. The Christians, of course, failed in this respect as well, leading God to send the Prophet Muhammad with the laws of the Quran. His proof of this was that it says in the Quran that Muhammad is the last messenger of God, bringing God’s final and complete message.

Slightly shocked, I thought I might change the subject and ask him about something we were supposed to be discussing. My question was “Do you have a comment on the recent ruling regarding the sexual harassment case, and what do you think is the future of this issue in Egypt politically, culturally, and socially?” I received a two part answer. The first part was that yes, there is a problem with sexual harassment in Egypt, but there are these same problems all across the world. In fact, there is an international phenomenon of moral decline, which is causing this problem. Even in America you have these problems. Next, he told me that if I go up to a woman on the street in Egypt and say something to her such as “oooh, you are so pretty,” or hiss at her, then I will get thrown in jail for a week because that is Egyptian law. Sexual Harassment in Egypt really deserves its own post, in fact, one could write an encyclopedia about it, but let me just say that it is sometimes the police officers here who are doing the harassing, and when my classmate got spit on the other day, and my other classmate got her crotch grabbed multiple times in broad daylight, no one went to jail.

So unfortunately, what could have been an incredibly rewarding discussion on the challenges to the judicial system in Egypt turned out to be, for lack of a better term, complete and utter bullshit. My classmates and I were not only disappointed, but angry as well.
What the judge talked about is indicative of a lot of social and cultural problems in Egypt. First, the view that Islam is the be all and end all, that is has the answers to everything, and that one is silly not to embrace it, is manifested in a myriad of contexts and as this educated, influential judge has proven, at all levels of society. Second is the lack of responsibility in Egyptian culture. Even in the Egyptian dialect, one does not say “I missed the bus.” The actual translation would be “the bus missed me.” The judge, who of all people should be willing to take responsibility and admit that Egypt has a problem with sexual harassment, blamed it on the rest of the world and of course, which brings me to my final point, brought the US into the discussion. I realize that because I am American, Egyptians may whole-heartedly want to discuss America with me, or relate what they are saying to the US because they think it might be useful for me or help elucidate a point. But even though the sex that Egyptians see in US movies certainly has an effect on their sexual behavior, it really is not an excuse for the terrible sexual harassment problems in Egypt.

It is a sad state of affairs in my opinion when the man who should be representing rule of law, accountability, and the democratic process refuses to deal with important issues facing his country and preaches his religion in place of a constructive discussion on the role of the judiciary. Not to mention he didn’t answer my question.

2 Responses to Egypt’s Top Judge

  1. Khawaga says:

    Yo,

    I think that there are a lot of Muslim judges who will concede that the law is based in part on Islam, but that that does not mean that it is based on the Sharia. They would say that modern law in a place like Egypt represents a synthesis of Islamic values and modern (western) legal systems. The Sharia, on the other hand, is a system of jurisprudence that basically ceased to exist with colonialism. That system went beyond values and simple rulings, but was a much larger, much more complicated method of legal interpretation and practice. So the current legal system is still based on Islam and Islamic values, but in no resembles “Sharia,” a word that, as you know, cannot be translated as simply “Islamic law.”

    In a place like Egypt I would imagine that people high up have a stake in denying the Sharia any role in society because it would be seen as a concession to the brotherhood. They can, however, placate the people by claiming that the state holds true to Islamic values and some basic tenets.

    So maybe he had a more thoughtful answer than it seemed.

    I hereby entitle this comment, all previous comments, and most likely all future comments “Giving Fulan the Benefit of the Doubt.”

  2. Ibn Yaaqub says:

    Khawaga,

    A very thoughtful post, and you make a good point. However, more so than the exact nature of how Egyptian law relates to Sharia, is that the judge completely denied that Islam had an influence on Egyptian legal society, which I think is entirely not the case. In addition, as the most influential judge in Egypt, I would have expected a more intelligent answer, one much like yours. Furthermore, his suggestion that Sharia is the best and most correct legal system for any society and should be implemented as such, in my mind, adds to the absurdity of his statements in general, thus detracting from the validity and honesty of his comments as a whole.

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