On a slow news day right before Eid al-Adha, a small item was inserted in Egyptian media outlets, each worded in exactly the same way (as so many news items are these days). It listed, by name, individuals who had been appointed to Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC). This was a tame item even by the tame standards of Egyptian media. But the most newsworthy aspect of the story was left out: a military figure was being parachuted into what had once been one of the most remarkably active judicial bodies in Arab legal history, perhaps completing the court’s subjugation to the military authorities.
The omission was likely not by accident. Previous appointments have been a bit less taciturn, always accompanied with brief biographical sketches. But this time readers would not know anything about who was being added, as they were simply described with the title “judge.” And even those unlikely few curious enough to resort to Google could find nothing on Salah Mohammed Abd al-Magid Youssef, a name with no internet trail. The only place his name turned up in public was in the appointment decree in the Official Gazette itself, where it was revealed that President Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi had named the new justices pursuant to the SCC law and after a meeting of the court’s General Assembly—suggesting that the current justices had endorsed the addition of the new colleague.
There were rumors that there was something unusual about one of the appointments. But only when an enterprising and admirably careful journalist from Mada Masr matched Salah Mohammed Abd al-Magid with Brigadier Salah al-Ruwayni, the head of the military judiciary, was the secret out. The omission of his family name, Ruwayni, from all news accounts had made the identification difficult, but the journalist was able to ascertain that the SCC’s General Assembly had indeed endorsed the addition of the country’s most senior military judge to its ranks.
Why is the step significant—so significant that such pains were taken to obscure it?
Egypt’s various authoritarian regimes have generally had a drawer full of tools to allow them to evade legal structures and processes when they felt the necessity to do so. And they have a second drawer full of tools to bend legal structures and systems to their needs when they seek to avoid tossing out the rulebook altogether—states of emergency, exceptional courts, pretrial detention, and the like. Military judges can bristle when it is suggested that they form part of this second set of tools. They do not form exceptional courts, they claim, because their existence has a constitutional basis as well as one in law. True enough, but regimes have been able to resort to using them against troublesome civilians, and (at the military’s insistence) this was not only preserved but expanded in Egypt’s 2014 constitution.
But the existing regime goes a bit farther. It is not unusual to hear official proceedings (even an overseas trip by a parliamentarian) being referred to security bodies for approval or disapproval. There is often no legal requirement for such a step, which delays all sorts of government work. Yet state structures now seem to feel a need to ensure that even certain routine matters gain approval from one of Egypt’s security agencies. It is as if various intelligence and security agencies supply the equivalent of commissars to the far-flung recesses of the state apparatus.
But Ruwayni’s appointment takes things a step farther by inserting an officer on the SCC itself. Of course, the new justice will have only one vote. Since Egyptian multijudge court rulings are always pronounced without dissenting opinions (or even the vote) disclosed, there will be no public judicial record by which to judge the new justice. But it seems unlikely that when he takes off his uniform and dons a robe, he will find himself in the minority, especially on matters that are understood as touching on security, or what are sometimes referred to as “sovereign” bodies. Such bodies are those military and security forces that identify their mission as the protection of the Egyptian state.
It represents a rupture with judicial norms and traditions to insert a military figure into such a setting. The startling nature of the appointment is likely why the news was portrayed in such a way as not to make the news.