Global Freedom of Expression

(De)Liberalizing Judicial Independence in Egypt

Key Details

  • Region
    Middle East and North Africa
  • Themes
    Political Expression

 Texas A&M University School of Law
September 13, 2015

Egypt and the Contradictions of Liberalism: Liberalism, Intelligentsia, and the Future of Egyptian Democracy (2016), Forthcoming


The January 25th Egyptian revolution was initiated in the public square and defeated in the courts. In the months following the forced resignation of longtime president Hosni Mubarak, a protracted power struggle ensued between a people demanding self-governance and a chronically authoritarian regime. As the various stakeholders within the “deep state” realized their political disadvantage in mass street mobilizations by youth activists and opposition groups, they strategically transferred the conflict to the courts. Cognizant of Mubarak’s success in co-opting significant portions of the judiciary, the military-led interim government trusted the judges to deploy thin notions of rule of law to quash Egyptians’ demands for substantive justice and populist democracy. Thus, an assessment of Egypt’s so-called January 25th Revolution warrants an inquiry into the role that courts played in the retrenchment of a centralized, authoritarian state and what ultimately became a stillborn revolution.

In the heady days following Mubarak’s forced resignation, youth activists and the Muslim Brotherhood had few qualms with litigating the revolution. In the 1990s, the judiciary had been the only state institution that dared to check executive powers through rights-protective rulings and public condemnations of fraud in the 2005 parliamentary elections. Indeed, the Egyptian judiciary had a long history of fighting for its independence from executive branch interference such that both secular activists and Muslim Brotherhood supporters viewed it as a liberal institution that would side with their calls for social justice. What transpired since 2011, however, has exposed the fallacy of these assumptions and called into question the liberal underpinnings of Egypt’s judiciary. In the end, the judges’ self-ascribed roles as the guardians of social order and political stability has proven to be more rhetorical than substantive.

Accordingly, this article examines how a critical mass of Egyptian judges have strayed from the judiciary’s liberal roots dating back to the 19th century, resulting in the legitimation of the same authoritarian regime but for a new military elite coalition at the helm. Through mass death sentences of Muslim Brotherhood (MB) leaders and alleged supporters, convictions of dissident journalists, and punitive sentences of youth activists for protesting; the judiciary has signaled support for illiberal authoritarian practices that systematically quash personal, political, and legal liberty.

This paper can be downloaded without charge from the Social Science Research Network Electronic Paper Collection


Sahar Aziz

Associate Professor, Texas A&M University School of Law, USA