Egypt’s invisible strongman

If you were to hold a contest for the most powerful person in Egypt today, the debate would likely center on an array of well-known personalities: Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, leader of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) perhaps, or a bevy of Islamists — Muslim Brotherhood leader Khairat el-Shater comes ...

KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images
KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images
KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images

If you were to hold a contest for the most powerful person in Egypt today, the debate would likely center on an array of well-known personalities: Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, leader of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) perhaps, or a bevy of Islamists -- Muslim Brotherhood leader Khairat el-Shater comes to mind. But the true power behind the throne in Cairo may be a figure that few have heard of: a graying, bespectacled judge named Farouk Sultan.

Sultan is the chief justice of Egypt's Supreme Constitutional Court. According to Egypt's provisional constitution, that also makes him the head of the commission overseeing the upcoming presidential elections. And it imbues him with near unassailable powers: The constitution says the commission's decisions "will be final and carry the force of law" -- they are not subject to review or appeal by any other body.

It's a power that recently came into stark relief when Sultan's Supreme Presidential Electoral Commission (SPEC) disqualified three of the leading presidential contenders. The candidates had until today to appeal the decision -- but their petition only goes back to the body that disqualified in the first place, and must be limited to narrow issues of legal interpretation.

If you were to hold a contest for the most powerful person in Egypt today, the debate would likely center on an array of well-known personalities: Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, leader of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) perhaps, or a bevy of Islamists — Muslim Brotherhood leader Khairat el-Shater comes to mind. But the true power behind the throne in Cairo may be a figure that few have heard of: a graying, bespectacled judge named Farouk Sultan.

Sultan is the chief justice of Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court. According to Egypt’s provisional constitution, that also makes him the head of the commission overseeing the upcoming presidential elections. And it imbues him with near unassailable powers: The constitution says the commission’s decisions "will be final and carry the force of law" — they are not subject to review or appeal by any other body.

It’s a power that recently came into stark relief when Sultan’s Supreme Presidential Electoral Commission (SPEC) disqualified three of the leading presidential contenders. The candidates had until today to appeal the decision — but their petition only goes back to the body that disqualified in the first place, and must be limited to narrow issues of legal interpretation.

Sultan’s background that is giving many heartburn about his newly pivotal role in Egyptian affairs. George Washington University professor Nathan Brown wrote in 2009, upon Sultan’s selection as chief justice by Hosni Mubarak, that the appointment "stunned observers" because Sultan’s career "brought him through some of the more sordid parts of the Egyptian judicial apparatus" — the courts most susceptible to pressure from the Mubarak regime.

"He doesn’t have the academic background [of many other Egyptian judges], and his background was entirely outside of the Constitutional Court, which is the first alarm," said Amir Marghany, an Egyptian lawyer who has previously offered legal counsel to Egypt’s al-Wasat Party. "At the end of the day, he is a Mubarak appointee."

Egypt’s Mubarak-era Constitutional Court was actually largely free from political influence until the early 2000s, issuing a series of rulings that ran counter to the regime’s wishes. But Mubarak subsequently moved to curb the court’s independence, abolishing a tradition that allowed members of the Constitutional Court to nominate a chief justice. By appointing pliable judges to the top spot, Mubarak gained control over one of the last levers of state power that had previously escaped his grasp.

As Brown put it in a recent conversation, Sultan "is basically seen to have been put on there to control the court, not issue the type of inconvenient rulings that it has in the past."

There’s another wrinkle to this story: Sultan turned 70 last year, the age at which Egyptian judges are required to retire.  That means he has to step down at the end of the judicial year — shortly after the upcoming presidential elections. And as everyone knows, there are fewer people less influenced by political constraints than those already on their way out the door. Egyptian power brokers, beware.

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