The History of Judicial Activism in Lebanon: A Fable of Forgetfulness

2014-01-27    |   

The History of Judicial Activism in Lebanon: A Fable of Forgetfulness

Why have Lebanese judges forgotten their history of social movements? This question becomes more pressing when one looks at the activity of judges in other countries, such as Italy, France, Egypt and Tunisia. Judges of those countries have placed their past collective experiences of confronting executive power at the centre of legitimizing their current activism, and as the essence of their professional identity.

In Egypt for instance, the purge of judges under Gamal Abdel Nasser and the role of the Judges’ Club since 1939 are an integral part of any Egyptian judge’s experience, regardless of their own opinion on the matter.

In Tunisia, the Young Judges' Association and the 2005 fate of the Tunisian Judges' Association (the coup against its elected council), are a formative component of the cognitive experience of any Tunisian judge, regardless of their [political] views.

On the other hand, Judges in Lebanon go about their affairs each in their own professional space governed by present concerns and the routine of daily work. Rarely do they refer to their shared past experiences, and when they do so, they invoke the officially sanitized and sanctioned version.

How many young Lebanese judges are actually familiar with the activities of the Judicial Circle (al-Halaqa al-Qadaiyya) back in the 1970s? Are they acquainted with the roles of judges Naseeb Tarabay, Abdel Basset Ghandour and Gabriel Meouchi -to name a few- the same way Egyptian judges –even Egyptian people– are familiar with and take pride in the roles of Egyptian judges Momtaz Nassar and Yehya al-Rifai?

Young Lebanese judges cannot be held accountable for such amnesia. Their career develops in a judicial space lacking any [organizational] structure that can bring them together, and with little reference to the milestones that constitute the collective memory of their profession. When invoked, collective memories serve to consolidate professional bodies around a firm identity. In turn, this enhances the possibility of standing up against political interference and mobilizing an improved judicial experience. For collective work towards judicial independence is a realistic strategy, not a mere slogan brandished annually at the outset of every judicial year.

Nevertheless, this organized amnesia often takes the form of surprise, in the sense that some judges balk at the idea organizing their colleagues under the auspices of a movement or an association. Hence, past collective activism is seen as a source of shame rather than pride. Collective activism concepts are considered foreign to the sober judicial tradition. One might get the impression that out of all the judicial systems of the world, the Lebanese judicial system holds a monopoly over sober conduct.

The fact that in most countries of varying wealth from, Egypt through France or India all the way to Chile, have had for decades now associations, unions and clubs defending their interests and efficiently intervening in their name when need be seems conveniently ignored. Equally so is the fact that the formation of judges’ clubs and associations was one of the first fall outs of the 2011 Arab uprisings against authoritarian regimes in many countries, such as Morocco, Libya and Yemen.

Many senior judges in Lebanon are no strangers to said facts but they choose to ignore these facts or even obscure them. In 2005 for example, when Lebanese judges set out to draft the Judicial Code of Ethics based on The Bangalore Principles of Judicial Conduct, they took out the right of judges to assembly. International principles of judicial independence and activity, it seems, are welcome, unless they run contrary to the judicial hierarchy comprised of senior judges who are appointed by political authority (members of the Lebanese Supreme Judicial Council (SJC), for example, are appointed regardless of their qualifications and integrity).

What is equally strange is the fact that current generations of judges seem to show little interest in the significant grassroots activism that took place in the corridors of Lebanon’s judicial system in the past decades. It is in this context that this article and the related study aim to construct a counter-history of the judicial profession in Lebanon, by recalling the milestones of said judicial movements, all of which clashed with the executive power (and sometimes that of the SJC).

These narratives were likely suppressed as a result of that confrontation. Today’s history of the profession was written up by the triumphant politicians of past conflicts at the expense of the judges’ version.

Note: Research for this article included more than twenty semi-directed interviews with current and former judges, and lawyers who bore witness to this grassroots activism. Research also relied on journalistic archives from Lebanese newspapers Al-Nahar, Al-Safir, and L’Orient-Le Jour, in addition to some private archives of individual judges and lawyers. We only present here 4 major activist movements of the Lebanese judiciary. As for the limited movements that followed after the end of the Lebanese civil war, they can be reviewed in said research report.   

Judges Assembling for Self-Mobilization: Judicial Studies’ Circle (1969-1974)

The “Judicial Studies’ Circle” was founded as a non-profit association in 1969. The initiative was taken by judges Naseeb Tarabay, Youssef Gebran, Abdulla Nasser and Abdel Basset Ghandour who submitted the founding statement to the Ministry of Interior. The latter, in turn, provided them with Public Notice No. 82 issued on February 26, 1969 [acknowledging the foundation of the association].

The Ministry of Justice allowed the association to set up its office in two rooms at the ministry. The founders set academic goals for the association, such as conducting research and organizing conferences, so as to promote a propitious climate for judicial proficiency.

They also seemed highly aware of the importance of founding said association for the enhancement of the judicial institution itself. The journal issued by the association [titled The Circle], reads as follows: “Establishing, for the first time in Lebanon, an open association for judges and experts of law is in itself an invaluable step in the history of the Lebanese judiciary. Such a step should motivate judges to work harder to achieve excellence, not only at the personal level, but at the institutional one that they are part of”.

This unique collective initiative adopted an ambitious discourse. Priority was given to self-criticism based on the principle that “better be hard on oneself than deal with the harshness of others”. All member-judges were on an equal footing within the association, a departure from established concepts of hierarchy and power within the judiciary. In fact, some prominent member judges of the association candidly voiced their opinions about official judicial institutions. For example, the SJC was described as the guarantor of the rights of Lebanese sects. The Judicial Inspection Committee came under heavy criticism and was deemed as having been initially established under its current formation for purely sectarian reasons. The Judicial Circle was also distinguished by its clear openness to the international scene. It boasted about its membership in the International Association of Judges whereas it became the first Arab association to join, and it did not try to conceal how influenced it was by Judges’ Associations in certain European countries such as France.

About ninety judges joined the association in the first year of its creation. It issued a publication titled “The Circle” (4 issues), and organized a number of lectures on the independence and the social role of the judiciary. Among the most notable lectures was the 1971 lecture of Tarabay on “Judicial Appointments” presented before a large number of judges (80), including Head of the SJC, Emile Abu Kheir, and Head of the Judicial Inspection Committee, Mamdouh Khoder.

Tarabay tackled what he called “the bazaar of appointments”, describing the process as a “tragedy whose devastating chapters we have always witnessed”, and where “booty seekers rush to the doors of politicians and notables”. Tarabay demanded bringing the “obsessive worry over appointments” under control by “seeking rules and regulations that officials without exception abide by”. Tarabay criticized the procedures of appointment whereby “the ruler appoints his own judges” (referring to the President of the Republic). He denounced favoritism ruling the process and outlined the interference mechanism even within the SJC, which he depicted as the guardian of divvying up booty among the religious sects.

The lecture raised the ire of the then-Lebanese president Suleiman Frangieh, who summoned the SJC’s members and queried them about their attendance of the event and applause of its speaker. Tarabay was referred to the disciplinary board and given a conduct warning. The prosecution of Tarabay slowed down the Circle’s work which continued with a limited pace, until it came to a full halt with the outbreak of Lebanon’s civil war.

Judicial Committee 1 & 2: Unprecedented Radical Advocacy for Demands (1980-1982)

Towards the end of 1979, and prior to the launch of the Judicial Committee, Lebanon’s judiciary was the scene of an important activist movement. Unlike past and future movements that were mainly run by senior judges, this one was initiated by young judges who had recently graduated from the Institute of Judiciary Studies (JSI). Based on a study conducted by the young judges (namely, Judge Francois Daher) outlining their demands, they were able to gather 172 signatures of judicial judges (out of a total of 270 judges), on a petition calling for the demands outlined in the study.

The study, along with the petition, were presented to the Minister of Justice Youssef Gebran on December 27, 1979 (the minister simultaneously held the office of head of SJC). Original copies were also presented to the SJC. The importance of said petition lies not only in it being one of the rare petitions in the history of the Lebanese judiciary, but also in its reliance on a 20-page study to justify the demands listed.

Few days after the submission of the judges’ petition, another judicial movement of a different kind was officially declared. On January 1, 1980, a meeting was held in the Palace of Justice and 60 judges attended. The meeting was called for by the “Temporary Judicial Committee” which included several judges, mainly Gabriel Meouchi, Hassan Kawass and Munif Hamdan. The meeting resulted in the creation of a follow-up committee and the drafting of a list of demands, including those mentioned in the study used to back up the petition. The list of demands focused on non-material demands such as the independence of the judiciary.

Another major focus was the obsessive concern with judicial appointments. These appointments were described as “the primary weakness of the judicial body (…) they are the porthole through which the executive power peers (…) and by means of which the government turns judges into mere employees”.

In order to attract judges to the movement, the committee’s members conducted official visits to regional courthouses and judicial committees (State Council, Court of Accounts). The Committee sought to present said movement as a direct successor of the Judicial Studies’ Circle, which demonstrates the lasting influence the Circle had after several years of inactivity.

Remarkably, the committee heavily sought the press on a quasi-daily basis to publish its news, statements and articles written by its members. By doing so, it shifted the debate on judicial issues into the public domain. The committee members justified these unorthodox methods as necessary under the miserable state of the judiciary at the time.                                

The “authorities”, represented by the minister of justice, ministers of information and Head of the SJC, Judge Youssef Gebran, were quick to react. There was an attempt to contain the movement by supporting some of the demands on one hand, while challenging the lawfulness of such an approach and waving the possibility of taking punitive measures on the other hand. Gebran and the SJC also adopted some of the demands set out by the young fresh-graduate judges, which might have led those judges to suspend their committee membership.

At the same time, and after years of inactivity, thanks to the deteriorating security situation back then, the decree of judicial assignments and appointments was issued. According to some members and sources close to the committee, the resumption of issuing said decress was an attempt to “alienate” the Head of the committee, Gabriel Meouchi, who was transferred from his post as president of the Criminal Court to become second adviser at the Court of Cassation.

Although the judicial appointments decree split several judges from the movement, it further intensified the demands by the movement’s hawks, namely, Gabriel Meouchi and Munif Hamdan. The latter two harshly criticized the movement’s opponents in the press. The lion’s share of criticism befell Gebran and the SJC, as well as the Parliament's Administration and Justice Committee. However, by the second-half of 1980, the movement ceased to play a visible role in public. Despite its eventual decline, and with all its pros and cons, it constituted one of the most important Lebanese judiciary’s activist movements and a preliminary step for the launch of a larger movement in 1982.  

Judicial, Administrative and Sharia Judges Resort to Strike Action

Just like the 1980 movement, the 1982 movement emerged in a gradual manner with the initiative of the “The Judges’ Demands Follow-Up Committee”. The new committee included twelve members, three of whom hailed from the 1980 one, i.e., Meouchi, Kawass and Hamdan. The Follow-Up Committee called on the judges for a general assembly on March 27, 1983. The call included a recommendation asking for the “resignation of judges and immediate cessation of work in the event the [material and moral] demands of judges and judicial assistants are not met”.

The movement managed to hold a general assembly meeting in the midst of a civil war. The meeting was attended by a large number of judicial, administrative and sharia judges (totaling 347), who elected a representative committee and unanimously declared their intention to lock themselves out of work if their demands were not met by April 10 of that year.

As was the case in 1980, the 1982 initiative developed an exceptional relationship with the media, and statements by the committee were issued and published almost on a daily basis. This openness to the media was highlighted from the outset, where the secretary general of the committee, Judge Munif Hamdan, issued a press release on March 24, 1982, inviting all local, Arab and international media to attend the first general assembly and to contribute in “defending the independence of the judicial power and the rule of constitutional law”. The role of the media was no longer limited to a means of communication with public opinion, but rather, it became a partner in the struggle.

Negotiations with the authorities regarding the judges’ demands were unsuccessful, despite extending the set deadline to halt work twice. Finally, during the general assembly meeting on April 24, 1982, the 356 attending judges unanimously decided to halt all work until their demands were met. An in-depth discussion about the strike took place among the judges. The controversy was not limited to the appropriateness of such an action in relation to judicial customs, but touched on whether it contravened the legal ban on strikes as stated in the Law of Employment. Some judges deemed collective resignations a more appropriate form of action for a profession such as theirs. However, the pro-strike judges had the final word after legal opinions on the matter were produced. The committee also cited the demonstration undertaken by French judges in January 1971, conferring more legitimacy to its action from this comparison with a European country praised for its rich judicial tradition.

The Lebanese authorities used the carrot and stick approach in dealing with the actions of the judges. On one hand, negotiations took place at a higher level, with the Lebanese president getting involved by instructing the SJC and the minister of justice to create a new statute regulating the judicial system, that would safeguard the independence of the judiciary. On the other hand, the SJC issued a dual warning on May 2, whereby it required the executive branch of government to respond to the demands by June 7, to avoid a collapse [of the Judicial body], and threatened to invoke Article 65 of the Judicial Law which effectively meant “cleansing” the judges who refuse to return to work.

The SJC’s warning caused a split in the movement. The majority wanted to suspend the strike, arguing that the SJC had adopted the demands with convincing enthusiasm. Few, notably Hamdan, perceived the SJC’s threats as an even more exasperating humiliation. Hamdan called for a press conference but he was barred from holding it with the deployment of heavy security around the Adlieh Courthouse. The subsequent debate over the course of action led to the suspension of the strike action until June 7. However, on June 5, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon put an end to the whole affair and, as such, brought the most radical activist movement in the history of the Lebanese judiciary to a close.

When History is Betrayed by Memory The Judge is Left Alone

In light of these major historic events, a question lingers: What is left for the judiciary once its collective history of struggle is forgotten? There is little doubt that every professional body requires an embellished historical narrative to act as a source of pride, and to bring out the profession’s laudable attributes. That is the case with regards to Egyptian judges for example.

Even Lebanese lawyers masterfully wove a historical narrative around their profession as one protecting democracy and liberties in Lebanon. Through their union, Lebanese lawyers regularly consult their recorded history -regardless of its accuracy- whenever they need to strengthen their ties or reaffirm their professional or political roles.

Lebanese judges, however, practice the exact opposite. Senior judges somehow willfully forget vibrant and prominent phases of their history, in order to take on a humble stance before the political authority and its security apparatus. Such amnesia however has a direct impact on the independence of Lebanese judges. A judge without a trans-hierarchical association to turn to for discussing his/her issues and concerns, without a collective memory to lean on with his/her colleagues in order to mobilize oneself and develop his/her career, is a judge standing alone and stranded before the political, security and economic authorities. The judge has no choice, but to refer to political and religious leaders who become the standards-setters of what it entails to be a good powerful judge in Lebanon. It is no wonder, then, that the policy of amnesia is among the policies used to subdue the Lebanese judiciary to the requirements and interests of the governing political strata.  

This article is an edited translation from Arabic.


[1] This article is based on a documentary study by Nizar Saghieh and Samer Ghamroun. The study was published in the book “Hina Tajmaa al-qudat”, prepared by Nizar Saghieh, Beirut: Sader Legal Publishing.


[2] Clauses 4.6 and 4.13


[3] See: The Circle, Issue No.1, pg. 7.


[4] See: The Circle, Issue No.1, pg. 2.


[5] See: The Circle, Issue No.1, pg. 4.


[6] Interviews with former Judges Munif Hamdan, Saleem al-Azar and Hekmat Harmoush.


[7] Signatures were gathered by Judges Omar el-Natour and Khoder Zanhour.


[8] Preceded by the 1945 petition.


[9] See: Al-Nahar, January 6, 1980.


[10] Interview with former Judge Munif Hamdan on July 17, 2007.


[11] See: Al-Anwar, January 20, 1980.


[12] See: Al-Nahar, January 12, 1980.


[13] Al-Anwar on March 27, 1980, Al-Anwar on April 1, 1980.


[14] Hamdan, July 17, 2007, Kawass, July 27, 2007.


[15] The new members are: Abdel Karim Saleem, Rasheed Hoteit, Adnan Adoum, Mokhtar Saad, Nadeem Abboud, Youssef Saadallah el-Khoury, Nusrat Haidar, Shbeib Mokaled, Francois Daher and Elias el-Khoury.


[16] Al-Nahar, March 28, 1982.


[17] Al-Nahar, March 25, 1982.


[18] Al-Nahar, May 3, 1982.


Share the article

Mapped through:

Articles, Independence of the Judiciary, Lebanon, Social Movements

For Your Comments

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *