The decision this week of Egypt’s Islamist President, Mohammed Morsi, to convene a “conference” in response to outrage among the country’s judges at a proposed reduction of their compulsory retirement age, from 70 to 60, is being presented as a victory for the latter group of greedy geriatrics and a humiliating climbdown on the part of the former.
But the opposite is true. Not since Ibn Saud, the founder of Saudi Arabia, has the Middle East seen such a sly political fox as Mr Morsi. What he actually did was lure the judges into his presidential den to give them enough rope with which they will eventually hang themselves.
For starters, the judges were shouting slogans on the streets not because of anything Mr Morsi had said, but as a result of comments made to a Kuwaiti newspaper by Mehdi Akef, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide. He claimed that 3,500 judge would “soon” be dismissed by parliament. Parallels were drawn with dictator Gamal Abdul Nasser’s dismissal of 189 Egyptian judges in 1969, known as the “massacre of the judiciary”.
However, Mr Akef quickly, if unconvincingly, denied having said anything of the sort; and a mass, Islamist-led, anti-judiciary march, planned for last Friday, was abruptly cancelled. Nevertheless, the commotion allowed Mr Morsi to step in to play the role, once again, of unifying statesman.
In reality, he understands, better than the Brotherhood’s impatient hotheads, that the Islamists need the support of the judges in the short term. After all, they will be responsible for supervising forthcoming parliamentary elections, which his own Muslim Brotherhood party and their more radical Salafist allies are likely to win. What better stamp of legitimacy could any party wish for than one given by its most bitter enemy?
Moreover, Mr Morsi’s diplomatic brokering drew attention away from the damaging news that one of his senior advisers had just resigned — in protest at alleged government efforts to undermine judicial independence.
Having already purged the state-run media, the education system and local governments of secularist influence; with the country’s mosques almost all under Salafi control; and with ordinary Egyptians taking the law into their own hands as confidence in the police reaches all-time lows, when it comes to the judges, Mr Morsi can bide his time. A former political prisoner himself, he knows that they are hated by ordinary Egyptians for having sentenced thousands to jail in sham trials during Hosni Mubarak’s three-decade rule.
No one, though, should doubt that a day of reckoning looms.
In the meantime, Mr Morsi’s biggest challenge will be keeping the more trigger-happy Islamists from opening fire. One Islamist judge, citing the Koran, has just sentenced an Egyptian to 90 lashes for being drunk; and the leader of a Salafist party is calling for the head of Egypt’s Judges’ Club to be given the death penalty for “seeking foreign intervention” in the country.