Egypt's judges have rallied mounting calls for political reforms, asking for a long-due separation of powers between the judicial and executive branches and threatening to disturb upcoming presidential polls.
The Egyptian Judges' Club - Egypt's equivalent of a judges' union - presented a draft law to parliament via left-wing opposition MP Abul Ezz al-Hariri late last month that seeks to amend the current judiciary law and guarantee their independence from the executive branch.
"A new judiciary law must be passed during the current parliamentary session (ending in June) before we consider supervising any future elections," said a statement released by the Judges' Club general assembly in Alexandria.
The judges are due to meet on April 14 and examine whether "to abstain from supervising the elections if a new law is not passed", one union member said.
Some are "even calling for a sit-in or a strike but we're trying to dissuade them because we want to resort to dialogue and rather than a confrontation", added Hisham Bastawissi, who also sits on Egypt's court of cassation.
Earlier this year, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak asked lawmakers to amend the constitution to allow for the first multi-candidate presidential elections in Egypt's history, set to be held in September.
Legislative polls will take place in October or November 2005.
"We believe that the independence of the judiciary is linked to the elections because a judge cannot be independent if he doesn't have the authority to supervise each and every phase of the electoral process," said Bastawissi.
"This ranges from controlling the electoral register to announcing the final results and the process cannot be transparent and properly supervised if it is overseen by the executive authorities and especially the ministry of interior," Hisham Bastawissi said.
"Under the current law, the state usurps the powers of the judiciary and places them in the hands of the interior minister, and the executive appoints all seven members of the supreme council of judges," he added in reference to the six council chiefs and the attorney general.
Bastawissi said the draft law proposed by the Judges' Club seeks to change these prerogatives to see the election of the attorney general and of at least five council chiefs.
Egypt's Justice Minister Mahmud Abu el-Leil said last week a preparatory committee had been set up examine a new judiciary law.
"This is only meant to postpone examining the Judges' Club draft law for another number of years," charged Bastawissi.
The draft law proposes that the extensive powers of the justice minister be trimmed so that he can no longer interfere in judiciary affairs, that court presidents be elected rather than appointed and that the judges' financial independence be guaranteed.
"It's all about democracy, there cannot be democracy without an independent, impartial and competent judiciary," said Yehia al-Rifai, a legal authority in Egypt and the former head of the court of cassation.
"The constitution provides for the independence of the judiciary but it does not establish the necessary guarantees for that purpose," Rifai said.
"This has allowed successive ministers of justice to exert their authority over judges, starting with fixing the amount of their financial bonuses and other monetary incentives to deciding on their appointments to high positions, which means buying their allegiance," he also said.
Rifai said fellow judges had pinned their hopes on the union's draft law whose "examination by parliament may happen thanks to calls by the United States and Europe for democratic changes" in Egypt.
Under growing pressure from its US ally, on which it is heavily dependent for both military and civilian aid, the government has grudgingly accepted the need for reform.