Remembering Tahani al-Gebali: Egypt's first female supreme court judge

5 min read
18 January, 2022
Former vice-president of the Supreme Constitutional Court, Tahani al-Gebali, Egypt's first female supreme court judge, has passed away aged 72. Despite opposition by the Muslim brotherhood, she leaves behind a legacy for Egyptian women to follow.

A judicial trailblazer who overcame challenges within an unashamedly patriarchal society, Tahani al-Gebali – Egypt's first-ever female supreme court judge – passed away from COVID-19 on January 9, aged 72. Described as an "iron woman" by admirers, scorned by members of the Muslim Brotherhood, Tahani al-Gebali leaves behind a legacy for Egyptian women to follow.

Born in Tanta, in Egypt's northern Gharbia province in 1950, Tahani graduated from Cairo University in 1973 in law. She then pursued a career as a lawyer for three decades before her appointment as the vice president of the Supreme Constitutional Court by then-president Hosni Mubarak in 2003. 

"Operating amongst a rising tide of ultra-conservatism within Egypt, Gebali’s appointment in the Supreme Court naturally stirred controversy"

Known for her elegant strength, Gebali was also the first Egyptian woman elected as a board member within a legal syndicate and was subsequently re-elected to her position.  In 1992, she was the first woman to ever become a permanent bureau member of the Union of Arab Lawyers.  

Operating amongst a rising tide of ultra-conservatism within Egypt, Gebali’s appointment in the Supreme Court naturally stirred controversy. Protesting against her appointment, these groups argued that it was against Islamic Sharia for women to hold the position of a judge. However, in 2007, a group of 30 women judges established a foundation and a union to encourage more females to join their ranks. There are now 430 women holding different judicial positions within Egypt. 

Al-Gebali has often attributed her upbringing as part of her success, having been brought up by fair and enlightened parents who encouraged her to fulfil her potential.

In a TV interview back in 2009, Tahani said "I was studying law at Cairo University, but I was born and raised in Tanta... my father would encourage me to discover all the fruits and wonders of Cairo, museums, theatres and the like."

Gebali took a firm stance against the ruling military junta that ran the country after the ousting of long-time autocrat Mubarak, following an 18-day nationwide uprising that led to his eventual downfall.

On March 19, 2011, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) held a referendum on amending the suspended constitution of Mubarak’s time, a measure that Gebali then opposed, calling on Egyptian citizens to cast a no-ballot.

“[Egyptians] should go and say no… because we were not given the chance to comment on the amendments… [which] were presented to us as if they were a sacred book that should not be discussed. Drafting a constitutional text is a political process [that] should be preceded by a large national dialogue in order to reach a national consensus over the matter,” Gebali told local news outlet Egypt Independent.

But despite the opposition of Gebali and many political forces to the amendments, the amendments were passed on March 30 the same year with the majority of voters casting yes-ballots. Later on, Gebali supported the military council against the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood that took over the country.   


 Anti-Muslim Brotherhood stance

Commentators and analysts argue that she was instrumental behind late Islamist president Mohamed Morsi taking the presidential oath in 2012 before the general assembly of the Supreme Constitutional Court after the parliament had been resolved by the military council shortly earlier.

However, the feud between the Brotherhood and Gebali persisted until the Islamist group supporters led by Morsi hastily drafted a new constitution in 2012 that included an article known at the time by being set to remove her from her post among other judges.

The new constitution stipulated that the Supreme Constitutional Court was to be formed of 11 members rather than 19. The remaining eight, the oldest ones, were to return to their original judicial posts. And since Gebali, was among the oldest, held no judicial posts before, she was obligated to retire. At that time, the supreme court judges accused Morsi of antagonising them.

"Social media platforms have turned into a war zone upon her death, with Muslim Brotherhood supporters gloating over her death and Gebali’s acquaintances and pro-regime members in mourning"

The Brotherhood has been legally designated a terrorist organisation in Egypt since 2014. 

Years later, Gebali lost a lawsuit and failed to regain her post but acquired her pension as a vice-president of the supreme court. Until recently, Gebali remained an active participant in the political scene known for her Nasserist affiliation. She was also a supporter of the regime of President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi.

Before her death, Gebali was a legal expert at the United Nations, an international arbitrator, and a lecturer at the Arab Institute for Human Rights in Tunisia.

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Social media platforms have into a virtual war zone upon her death, with the Muslim Brotherhood supporters gloating over her death and Gebali’s acquaintances and pro-regime members in mourning.

Amr Nassef, who apparently knew her personally, attached a picture of her on Twitter while mourning her: “Rest in peace…Counselor Tahani Al-Gebali… the brave sister… friend… Nasserist role model… the anti-Zionism and anti-racism.”

Another gloated her death, tweeting: “Your justice, you fair God Almighty, has been served.”

Thaer Mansour is a journalist based in Cairo, reporting for The New Arab on politics, culture and social affairs from the Egyptian capital