Presidential pickings: Ahmed Aboul Azm, the new head of the State Council
 
 

Up until the day before he was appointed chair of the State Council, Judge Ahmed Aboul Azm had described the chief judicial appointments law, which has catapulted him to the head of Egypt’s administrative court system, as unconstitutional.

Aboul Azm was lifted from his previous position as head of the council’s jurisprudence and legislative committees and installed as the head of the State Council on July 20 by a presidential decree issued by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in open defiance of a council general assembly decision that had placed its lot with Judge Yehia Dakroury.  

Dakroury, the now sidelined judge who serves as the council’s first deputy and sits at the head of the Court of Administrative Justice, was unanimously nominated by the general assembly on May 13 to succeed Judge Mohamed Masoud, who was to step down from his position on July 18. Where the chief judicial appointments law passed in April required the council to nominate three candidates, the assembly chose one: Dakroury, who would have been next in line if the long-standing customary principle of appointment by seniority had not been replaced. The move was political, in light of the perception that Dakroury was being targeted as the judge who initially struck down the contentious deal to transfer sovereignty over Tiran and Sanafir islands to Saudi Arabia. Sisi responded in kind, by invoking a clause in the April law whereby the president can select a new head from among the seven most senior judges if the judicial bodies fail to nominate three suitable candidates 60 days before the current chief leaves the post.

Enter Aboul Azm, the fourth most senior judge at the council. He will now preside over the Supreme Administrative Court, whose first chamber deals with issues related to rights and freedoms and adjudicating appeals related to presidential elections. The new face of the State Council has a 45-year history in Egypt’s judiciary, time spent serving in various committees of the council and issuing of dozens of verdicts, legal fatwas and administrative decisions. He has reviewed most of the laws Parliament has approved since it reconvened, including the one that paved the way for him to take up his new position.

Ahmed Aboul Azm was born in Sharqiya on September 15, 1949. He was appointed to State Council in 1972, joining the council’s various committees, both judicial and legislative, and serving as a member of the Assiut administrative and disciplinary courts. He then joined the Court of Administrative Justice (CAJ) and Supreme Administrative Court (SAC), working in the most of the latter’s 11 chambers. At a seminar that took place at the American University in Cairo on April 18, before the chief judicial appointments law was issued, Aboul Azm said the he has always prided himself on being “the youngest judge to join the first chamber at the Supreme Administrative Court.”

Aboul Azm’s past appointments include service on various jurisprudence committees at the council, including the Presidential Jurisprudence Committee, as well the those for the ministries of finance, provisions, trade and transport. He also spent time as a deputy in the governorates of Sohag, Monufiya, and Qalyubiya on the Technical Inspection Committee, which supervises the performance of judges.

Since October 29, 2014, Aboul Azm has worked as a legal consultant for the Qalyubiya governorate. He sits on the boards of the general administration for industrial development, where he has also worked as legal consultant since September 25, 2016, and the Banha University Faculty of Law. In addition to being a member of  the Supreme Committee for Legislative Reform, he joined the Petroleum Ministry’s Supreme Consultative Committee for the Development of Petroleum and Mining Legislation and Concession Agreements in October 2016. Judge Gamal Nada, the former head of the State Council, tasked Aboul Azm with representing the council at seminars and conferences organized by the Saudi Arabian Justice Ministry and the Arab Center for Legal and Judicial Studies in Beirut. He has also worked a consultant with the Agriculture Ministry and its affiliated bodies over the course of his tenure at the council.

Like most State Council judges, Aboul Azm’s sons work as judges at the council: Mahmoud currently works at the technical office of the Legislation Committee’s General Assembly as an assistant judge; Mohab works as an assistant delegate and has been recently appointed to the council.  

It was when he presided over the Supreme Administrative Court’s electoral chamber in October 2015 that he first entered the wider public eye. Around this time Aboul Azm issued several bold judgments, most notably his decision to uphold an administrative court ruling that barred businessman and former National Democratic Party Secretary General Ahmed Ezz from standing in parliamentary elections. He also struck down an administrative court decision that had greenlit the candidacy of dancer Sama al-Masry on the grounds that there were insufficient conditions of trust, status and reputation. Dakroury also surfaced here, when Aboul Azm amended the CAJ head’s ruling concerning medical exemptions for parliamentary candidates. Where Dakroury ruled that candidates must submit a medical certificate to the High Elections Commission to confirm their physical and mental fitness as much as their abstinence from drug and alcohol consumption, Aboul Azm reduced the requirements to demonstrating mental fitness and abstinence from drug use.

Those that worked with him during his time as chairman of the 11th chamber of the Supreme Administrative Court say he was known to be firm and strict in the court sessions over which he presided. Yet, he also displayed flexibility when he felt necessary.

Aboul Azm left his seat on the bench of the Supreme Administrative Court to assume the role of chairman of the State Council’s Legislative Committee, a post he held from July 21, 2016 until he was propelled to the head of the judicial body. In this yearlong period, the judge’s name was constantly intertwined with Parliament. Parliamentary Speaker Ali Abdel Aal sent him all laws that the legislature approved, whether prepared by MPs or by the government.

Aboul Azm held regular press conferences throughout this period, introducing the laws he had received from Parliament and relaying the time the Legislative Committee took to review and adjust the language of the legislation, while also disclosing some of the observations judicial committee members had made on the legislation’s provisions.

In each instance however, he stressed that the observations made by the Legislative Committee, which was invested with the authority by the Constitution to review all laws and issue non-binding recommendations before their approval, only concerned Parliament. “The mission of the Legislative Committee is to help administrative bodies to formulate the correct text. And if they choose to take the luxury of ignoring our advice, there are several other means to monitor the validity of the laws after their issuance,” Aboul Azm said at the AUC seminar in April.   

The  Legislative Committee under Aboul Azm did come under fire for what some saw as the expedited review of legislation. None of the laws submitted by Abdel Aal sat with the committee for more than 15 days, no matter how many provisions they might have included and despite the fact that Article 175 of Parliament’s bylaws grants the committee 30 days upon receipt of a piece of legislation for review.

This criticism was most apparent during the committee’s review of the chief judicial appointments law, the legislation that may come to define the autonomy of State Council as much as its new head.

Aboul Azm and the Legislative Committee received the law from Parliament on March 29. The State Council held an emergency general assembly a few days later on April 3, a gathering that ended in an official rejection of the law and a decision to authorize Masoud, the council’s head, and the Special Council, which consists of the six most senior deputies, to undertake the subsequent measures. On April 8, Masoud announced that he would preside over the Legislative Committee sessions in which the law was to be discussed. Many State Council judges, as well as Abdel Aal and various MPs, expected the legislative committee to take the full 30 days allotted to it to review the law, which would have seen it submitted on April 29, especially as this was the date until which Abdel Aal had postponed Parliament’s plenary session.

But Aboul Azm took everyone by surprise. The committee sent their observations on the chief judicial appointments law to Parliament on April 15. Parliament immediately moved to approve the law, and it was ratified by Sisi before May 1. Thus, all four judicial bodies were brought under the law’s purview — the State Council, the Supreme Judicial Council, the Administrative Prosecution and the State Lawsuits Authority — and “had to inform the president of the republic of the names of three nominees for the presidency of their respective judicial body within 60 days [of the outgoing president’s departure]; in case no nomination is made or if the nomination is comprised of less than 3 or of others beyond the 3 most senior judges, the president of the republic will appoint a new president from among the most senior 7 deputies,” according to the law.

While the Supreme Judicial Council, Administrative Prosecution and State Lawsuits Authority acquiesced to this last provision’s demands, the State Council’s general assembly insisted on one name: Judge Yehia Dakroury.

Dakroury was also present at the April 18 AUC seminar and there was an exchange between the two judges that would come to be at the center of Sisi’s contentious appointment. Aboul Azm told Dakroury that he should adhere to the provisions of the 1972 State Council law when he comes to preside over the council, which include sending the president reports that detail the legal fatwas and rulings the council issues and the laws the Legislation Committee receives, as much how receptive the government and Parliament are to the reports on legislation that the council issues. This relationship with Sisi is now left to Aboul Azm to take up, and he is expected to begin preparing for it now that he has been sworn in as the first State Council head to be chosen by the president rather than the council’s judges.

Translated by Aida Seif al-Dawla

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