Is there a place for women within Egypt’s judiciary?

Egyptian MP Nadia Henry submitted on February 7 a draft law to the House of Representatives demanding gender equality in judicial positions. The proposal, which was referred by the parliament speaker to the Legislative and Constitutional Affairs Committee, states that all judiciary entities should be committed to appointing women in accordance with the same criteria based on which men are selected and that any laws to the contrary are to be revoked.

The draft law cites articles 9, 11, and 53, all of which stress equality between Egyptian citizens and article 14, which states that appointment in public positions is merit-based. She also refers to the law regulating appointments in the State Council, the judicial entity most known for its adamant objection to the appointment of women in addition to the General Prosecution Authority, and noted that nothing in this law justifies the council’s stance. Henry’s draft law reignited a debate that has hardly subsided over years as women seem more determined to defy what they see as a flagrant infringement upon their rights.

Omnia Gadallah case

Henry’s initiative was to a great extent driven by the case of Omnia Gadallah, a female lawyer whose application for the position of assistant delegate—and eventually judge—at the State Council was rejected despite meeting all the requirements. Gadallah’s appeal against the council’s decision was rejected by the Commissioners Authority of the Supreme Administrative Court in November 2017. The authority’s report denied Gadallah’s claim that the council’s rejection of her application is an act of discrimination and argued that “the State Council has the right to select the applicants it sees fit and the constitution did not specify any conditions it needs to abide by.”

The report also underlined the difference between constitutional rights in daily life and the specificity of particular jobs in which the nature of the work and the working environment needs to be taken into consideration. More than 120 rights organizations and public figures declared solidarity with Gadallah and issued a statement that accused the entire judiciary system, not only the State Council, of discriminating against women.

“Even though Egyptian women were ahead of their counterparts in Arab and even some European countries as far as political rights are concerned, this does not apply to the judiciary,” said the statement. “Out of a total of 16,000 judges only 66 are women.”

Professor of political science Nevine Mosaad noted that Egyptian women’s battle for the judiciary has been ongoing for 70 years, particularly since 1949 when then lawyer later professor of international law, first Egyptian female ambassador, and minister of social affairs Aisha Rateb applied for the position of assistant delegate at the State Council and was rejected. “A ruling was issued in 1953 to the effect that there are no legal, constitutional, or religious rules that hinder women’s work in the judiciary, but rather social considerations and factors pertaining to the job itself,” she wrote.

Fighting for rights

“Ever since, women have been fighting for their right to work in the judiciary.” Mosaad admits that progress has been made starting 2003 with the appointment of Tahani al-Geblai as vice president of the Supreme Constitutional Court, hence becoming the first Egyptian woman to occupy a judicial position, then in 2007 and 2008 as a number of women started working in civil, criminal, and family courts. “Yet, the State Council remained a restricted area for women even after adding article 11 in the 2014 constitution and which gives women the right to work in judiciary entities.” According to Mosaad, the constitution is in many cases being dealt with selectively so that articles that are not in line with long established norms are ignored. “What is also ignored is the contribution of women to the judiciary in different Arab countries starting with Morocco in 1961 through Lebanon, Sudan, Libya, Jordan, Oman, the UAE and most recently Mauritania in 2014.”

Mosaad scoffed at claims that female judges in the Arab world have proven a failure and cited the example of Lebanese judge Jocelyne Matta who sentenced three Muslim men charged with insulting Virgin Mary to memorizing a chapter from the Quran that glorifies the Virgin and Jesus. “This is a unique verdict that unravels the judge’s wisdom and it was praised by people and authorities alike.”

Incapability to perform

Judge Adel Farghali, former deputy director of the State Council, argued that while many women are qualified to become judges and have all the right to, the nature of their responsibilities would render them incapable of performing efficiently. “In order for a verdict to be issued, judges have to be present throughout hearing sessions, deliberations, and the ruling, but the developments in a woman’s life might not make this possible,” he said. “She will get married and have kids so she will be on leave for some time more than once, which means that another panel has to be formed and the cases she was on will be started from the beginning.”

Farghali added that a female judge can also decide to don a face veil, which will be a major obstacle. “Plaintiffs and defendants have the right to know the identity of the judges in charge of their lawsuits to ensure fairness and due process, hence the entire case becomes invalidated if the judge covers her face.” Another obstacle, Farghali said, would be if the judge is conservative and would not agree to be in a closed room with her fellow male judges during deliberations. “Even if she’s not conservative at the beginning, this can happen after she gets married.”

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Journalist Mohamed Roshdi quoted a source from the State Council as saying that despite article 11 that allows women to occupy all position, the council has its own law that does not allow this. “In its last emergency meeting, the State Council General Assembly voted against the appointment of women,” the source said.

The source added that the assembly, which is comprised of all the council judges, is the highest body within the council and the only one capable of changing this decision and until then no women can be appointed. “It is also noteworthy that any article in the constitution requires a law that puts it into actionand there no is law that binds the State Council as far as appointing women is concerned.”

Desalination, water treatment, and making up for lost Nile water

“Egypt is embarking on the biggest desalination and water treatment project in its history,” said President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in a speech. “We cannot allow a water shortage in Egypt and we have to be prepared so that all citizens across the country get their share of water for both farming and drinking.” This statement coincided with growing concerns over an impending water crisis as construction of Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam progresses and negotiations between the two countries have not so far resolved any of the technical disputes. While this project is presented as a contingency plan, its ability to make up for lost Nile water if the impasse persists is put to question.

Ahmed Fawzi Diab, expert in water strategies and professor at the Cairo-based Desert Research Center, said that the project has nothing to do with the construction of the Renaissance Dam and will by no means make up for the water shortage caused by the dam. It is rather to deal with current shortage. “Egypt is currently suffering from an annual shortage of 30 billion cubic meters,” he said.

“In order to face this shortage, we need to treat sewage and agricultural wastewater which are directly discharged into the Nile.” Diab added that soon enough another 30 billion cubic meters will be needed owing to the agricultural expansion Egypt is witnessing as well as the expected population growth. “That is why while this project constitutes a positive step towards solving Egypt’s water problems, it should have been done much earlier.” Regarding desalination, Diab said that Egypt needs four stations, each of which producing four billion cubic meters annually. “The real challenge here is the enormous financial cost, which might hinder the realization of those projects on the ground.”

Desalination expert and professor of water chemistry Hossam Ahmed Shawki agreed that the project is required to solve current problems apart from future ones to because by the Renaissance Dam, yet admitted that the dam played a role in pushing the project forward. “The construction of the dam alerted us all to the necessity of looking for alternatives to Nile water which we now depend on almost exclusively,” he said. Shawki explained that Egypt’s share of Nile water is 55.5 billion cubic meters and another seven billion come from subterranean water while the country’s needs exceed 80 billion. “That is why the desalination of sea water was seen as one of the best choices, especially that it depends on an inexhaustible source.” Shawki added that Egypt’s production of desalinated water was 20-30 thousand cubic meters daily 25 years ago then kept increasing until it reached 130,000 one and a half year ago, is currently 250,000, and is expected to reach 700,000 in three years’ time.

“A few months ago, the Hurghada desalination station started operating and is now producing 180,000 cubic meters daily.” Shawki noted that desalination in Egypt started in coastal areas where potable water was needed for resorts, but with the new project stations will be spread across the country. “Desert areas, on the other hand, can depend mostly on subterranean water and there was a previous successful example in Algeria. Also, the desalination of subterranean water is cheaper than the desalination of sea water.”

Inevitable construction of the Jonglei Canal

According to water expert Nader Nour al-Din resuming the construction of the Jonglei Canal, which would make use of water wasted in the swamps and divert it to the main river channel, is now inevitable. “This canal will produce around 20 billion cubic meters,” he said. “Egypt has good relations with South Sudan, where the canal is now located, which would help move the project forward. It is also as important for South Sudan as it is for Egypt since it will provide irrigation water for hundreds of thousands of acres.” This project, Nour al-Din noted, still faces a lot of challenges that are not confined to sources of funding. “The project stopped before because of the war between the Sudanese government and South Sudan rebels and now the political situation in South Sudan is not very stable,” he explained. “If further clashes erupt, the project will be threatened once more.”

Sudanese water expert Salman Mohamed Salman underlined other challenges that are likely to hinder the implementation of the canal project. “Locals in the area where the canal is to be dug have for long objected to the project and staged several protests because they believe it will harm them,” he said. “The canal will obstruct the movement of the cattle in the area and is likely to have a negative impact on the amount of rain in the region.” The amount of rain in the area is determined by the water evaporating from the swamps, which will decrease when the water is diverted. Salman also noted that the swamps in this part have been designated an ecological zone, which makes the construction of the canal even more difficult now.

Safwat Abdel Dayem, advisor to the Arab Water Council, detailed the losses expected to be incurred by the Renaissance Dam in addition to the already-existing water shortage. “According to research, our share of Nile water will decrease by 5-10 billion cubic meters annually and the water stored in the High Dam will also be affected,” he said. “This will have a negative impact on agriculture both in terms of consumption and export.” Abdel Dayem explained that is Egypt share of Nile water decreases by five billion cubic meters, the losses of the agriculture sector will amount to 75 billion Egyptian pounds. “This loss will reach 150 billion Egyptian pounds if our share decreases by 10 billion cubic meters.”

Egypt and Ethiopia between deadlock and breakthrough over Nile dam

Upon his return from Cairo on January 19, Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn announced that he rejected Egypt’s proposal to seek the mediation of the World Bank in the dispute over the Renaissance Dam, which is expected to affect Egypt’s share of Nile Water. Upon finishing a meeting in Addis Ababa with Desalegn and Sudanese Present Omar al-Bashir on January 29, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi told reporters who asked whether the crisis was resolved that “there is no crisis” and none of the countries involved will be harmed.

On the same day, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri said that all pending technical issues will be finalized within one month, still giving no details. Unlike the first statement, which gives the impression that the impasse stands and negotiations are still failing, the second implies a breakthrough. However, with no obvious change in the few days that separated the two statements and no official announcements of a resolution, the situation remains blurred and so is the fate of Egypt’s one and only lifeline.

Ambassador and former deputy foreign minister Ahmed Abul Kheir said that despite how reassuring the president’s statement was, it still does not mean the crisis is resolved. “I don’t trust Ethiopia especially following the rejection of World Bank mediation,” he said. “The World Bank would have been extremely helpful in disputed technical issues and we are worried that any other entity might be swayed by Ethiopia.”

Abul Kheir added that Egypt should have come out of the meeting with more tangible results. “Obviously, Egypt had to do with good will gestures and promises rather than concrete agreements since unfortunately Ethiopia is in a stronger position and we need to be patient.” He, however, doubted that anything can be resolved within one month as the foreign minister said since the two countries have been negotiating for the past three years and are still unable to reach a middle ground. “This is, of course, unless Ethiopia offers huge concessions, which is extremely unlikely.”

Expert in African affairs Amani al-Tawil argued that the results of the negotiations in Cairo and Addis Ababa are not announced because both parties opted for discretion so that matters would not be blown out of proportion by the media, which was especially the case in Egypt where an anti-Ethiopian discourse prevailed in most media outlets.

“We also need to take into consideration that the Egyptian regime is cautious not to adopt a confrontational stance and to solve the issue through diplomacy and good will.” Tawil refuted claims that the ambiguity of the situation is attributed to the regime’s inability to manage negotiations.

“Such claims overlook the fact that the current regime inherited the problem. This is a result of years of negligence of African affairs under Mubarak as well as strained relations with African countries when the Muslim Brotherhood came to power,” she explained. Tawil, however, admitted that the two sides have not reached any agreement on the main pending issues. “For example, there is obviously no progress on the issue of filling the dam reservoir,” she said, in reference to both the timing and the speed of the filling, a major bone of contention between the two countries.

For professor of political science Tarek Fahmy, the optimistic tone with which the president spoke following his meeting with Desalegn and Bashir is due to Egypt’s ability to gain more ground in the negotiations. “Egypt scored a number of diplomatic victories in this meeting. First, Ethiopia did not reject the principle of mediation, so an international organization other than the World Bank can be asked to do this job,” he said.

“Second, the technical committee which stopped following an earlier deadlock in negotiations will now resume its work.” Ethiopia and Sudan, Fahmy added, also pledged not to make any agreements regarding the filling of the reservoir without involving Egypt. “All these achievements imply that Egypt did not offer any concessions and adhered to its position as far as its historic rights to Nile water are concerned.”

According to Ethiopian journalist Anwar Ibrahim, one of the reasons why negotiations are not moving forward is Egypt’s insistence on more demands in every round. “This includes the request for the mediation of the World Bank, which Ethiopia rejected because it believes that the two countries can resolve the issue without intervention,” he said.

“Add to this Egypt’s demand to know the amount of water to fill the reservoirs and the speed with which the water will be pumped and its request that Ethiopia constructs gates at the entrance to the dam in addition to proposals of joint administration of the dam.” Ibrahim added that he also heard reports that Egypt wanted to exclude Sudan from the negotiations. Ibrahim said that Egypt keeps adding demands despite reassurances from the Ethiopian side that its share of Nile water will not be harmed. “The Egyptian administration gives the impression that it is always trying to buy more time.”

Sudanese journalist Khaled al-Tijani Nour notes that strained Egyptian-Sudanese relations complicate the issue even more. “Both Egypt and Sudan are on the weak side since they are the downstream countries to be harmed by the construction of the dam, while Ethiopia calls the shots and that is exactly why it does not need to offer any concessions whatsoever,” he wrote.

“So, both Egypt and Sudan will eventually have to bow.” The problem, Nour explained, is that relations between the two countries have been souring lately, which is in Ethiopia’s best interest. “Ethiopia is aware that Egypt and Sudan will not unite against it so while they are both busy fighting, it is going ahead with its plans.”

Nour added that the technical issues over which Egypt and Ethiopia disagree are the least important. “This is not about water. This is about power. The Nile is just a strategic tool to determine who has leverage in the region and the problem needs to be dealt with from this perspective.”