By Seham El-Basha and Ahmed Gamal El-Din
Egypt, Mar2015, (Youm7) – If you are after social prestige without having to sacrifice years of your life studying to earn a professional title of “judge” or “diplomat”, then here is an easy way out for LE 1200.
Loopholes in the arbitration law allows the creation of self-styled civil associations running so-called “international arbitration centers” that are trapping youths eager to improve their social standing by selling them professional titles in return for attending training workshops.
These centers use Facebook accounts and post appealing ads in metro stations, even in official institutions, claiming that any person can get a future job either in the diplomatic corps or in the judiciary after completing a three-day workshop. At the end of the training, candidates will receive certificates bearing professional titles and logos equal to those granted to professional judges and diplomats.
These traps raise many questions: how do these centers operate? Which law regulates their work? And does their operational license grant them the right to issue certificates and titles such as “Arbitration Judge” or “legal and diplomatic advisor”.
Through a random sample of 15 establishments operating as “commercial and international arbitration” centers, Youm7 reporters show how such certificates are sold in the absence of government oversight. To prove the point, both reporters attended training workshops and obtained four certificates bearing titles such as “international arbitration judge” and “diplomatic relations adviser”. All they had to do was enroll in two training courses at the Cairo-based “Geneva International Arbitration Center” and the “International Arbitration Center”.
These professional titles violate arbitration law no. 27 of 1994, which only recognizes “arbitrators”. They also constitute a violation of the judicial authority law of 1972 and its 2006 amendments granting the title “judge” to bona fide judges.
These centers circumvent the law by adding the word “consensual or arbitrator” to the title. Moreover, the diplomatic titles granted by these local centers violate the diplomatic corps law of 1982 and its 2009 amendments.
Control over the work of these arbitration training centers is lost somewhere between the ministries of justice, foreign affairs, interior and social solidarity. Though the Ministry of Social Solidarity is in charge of granting these centers legal recognition, it does not have any data base on how many of them are operating across Egypt. Judicial action against violations committed by these centers remains limited. None of the authorities concerned act unless they receive a complaint – an unlikely event given the many benefits of holding such certificates.
Abdul-Wagih, in his 20s, joined a course at the International Arbitration Center hoping the certificate would earn him “a better social status with a higher income”. He could not contain his joy when the receptionist told him he could obtain a certificate and an ID card bearing the title “international arbitration judge” against a LE 1200 fee.
“I will never work in arbitration. But imagine if I stop at a police checkpoint and show them this ID card. They will salute me. If you have a law office and you have a sign that says “appeals lawyer and international arbitration judge”, you would have a lot of customers”.
Abdel-Wagih went to this center after he saw its ad on Facebook. He asked about the advantages of its courses and membership ID cards bearing the title “His Excellency the Judge”. The center has trained 11,515 candidates in 15 sessions between March 2013 and April 2014, according to its website.
Enrolling in a course at the International Arbitration Center and the Conventional Justice Institute was the starting point in our journey to expose how they operate and to obtain their membership ID cards as part of documentation. According to the ad on the center’s Facebook page and clarifications by their receptionists’, trainees obtain “accredited” cards and certificates bearing the title “Judge”.
Surprisingly, these two centers were working despite an arrest warrant issued by Public Finance Investigations Directorate against their chairman, Issam Amer, in February 2014. This was based on a memo issued by Judge Khaled Araq, head of Arbitral Affairs at the Ministry of Justice.
Brig. Gen. Assem al-Dahesh, director of the Counterfeiting and Forgery division of the Public Finance Investigations Directorate, says that Amer was charged with forgery and fraud under the Penal Code, after cards were seized inside the institute bearing fake logos of official judicial and diplomatic posts.
After his arrest, a decree was issued suspending all the activities of the institute by the Civil Associations Directorate in Cairo which had granted the center a permit in 2013, according to Hassan Ismail, deputy secretary general of the directorate. “If you go now to the center, you will find it closed” he told both reporters.
But upon our visit we found that the center was still operating. The first thing a visitor will notice is the display of awards reaped by Amer decorating many walls. One refers to him as “Ambassador of the Arab people,” a professional title that does not exist, according to Ambassador Bader Abdul-Ati of the Foreign Ministry.
In the first day of our training session held between April 26 and 30, 2014 in Dokki, the center showcased brass logos as well as legal literature on arbitration that it publishes and sells to trainees. These resembled the literature and kits put out by the Egyptian Judges Club as they contain the following printed words: “Exclusive to the members of the Judges Club” and in small print next to it the word “Conventional”.
“Only the members of the judiciary enjoy judicial immunity and it is prohibited to use titles or logos by those who are not members,” says Dr. Mahmoud Kbeish, former dean of the Law Faculty at Cairo University. “Nothing in the arbitration law allows the granting of such immunity, titles, or logos.”
During the course, lecturer Sami Mahmoud Moussa presented himself as “International Arbitration Judge”, distributing business cards bearing the title “National Arbitration Court Judge,” even though no such court exists in Egypt.
But Moussa defended the legality of these cards saying Judge Araq “is jealous of arbitration judges, because he fears they could pull the rug from beneath his feet”
At the end of the course, both reporters obtained two certificates. One bore the title “Arbitration Judge” and the other “member of the Egyptian Conventional Judges Club” for LE 1200 and LE 1500 respectively.
The membership cards are one of the attractions used to lure trainees, who can obtain certificates from four different centers, all headed by Amer. These centers are: The Conventional Justice Center; the International Arbitration Center; the Conventional Judges Club, and the Egyptian National Arbitration Court.
The promotion of membership of the so-called Egyptian National Arbitration Court violates the laws regulating the judiciary, which only recognize official courts such as the courts of first instance criminal, appeals, cassation and the military tribunals. The arbitration law in Egypt does not mention this court, instead requiring arbitration rulings issued by arbitrators to be referred to the Court of Appeals in order for them to be implemented.
Amer responded claiming that the establishment of the court came in the wake of a meeting of the Board of Trustees of the Conventional Justice Institute on 5/11/2013, as the first conventional justice court for training purposes. It is not part of the judiciary, he says.
“Lies, the claims of the Public Finance (investigations] are all lies,” he said in response to accusations leveled against him. “I was imprisoned because I was the first to open the door to everyone, but the other centers abused arbitration”.
He defended his centers, saying: “Why should I shut these centers down? When I established the Conventional Justice [center], I established a syndicate, a club, and a court along with it. My goal is to institutionalize arbitration.”
He added: “I obtained a permit from the West Cairo Directorate. It is aware of my activities and of the certificates and cards I grant to trainees. If I was breaking the law, then why did the Personal Status Directorate agree to add the title of ‘arbitration judge’ on my national ID card?”
The national identity card Amer spoke about was issued “before the Interior Ministry became aware of what these centers were doing,” according to Issam al-Dahesh from Public Finance Investigations. “The ministry wrote to the Civil Status Directorate after Amer was arrested, instructing it not to issue ID cards bearing the title of ‘Arbitration Judge’ or any other title that is not sanctioned by the law,” Dahesh added.
Hassan Ismail from the West Cairo Civil Associations Directorate responded by saying: “Giving the Conventional Justice [Center] a permit was on the basis that it is an educational, entertainment and a training association not an entity specialized in arbitration that could issue cards and certificates containing titles and logos that abuse the law.”
Amer did not only deny the charges against him. He also accused the Ministry of Justice and Public Finance investigations of prosecuting him alone, expressing his willingness to change the name of his institution to the “Egyptian Conventional Law Center” to avoid friction with the judiciary. He also suggested he would stop issuing titles, provided all other arbitration centers do the same.
However, until the time of the publication of this investigative report, Amer is yet to deliver on his promises. The center’s Facebook page still run ads offering judicial titles.
“Unfortunately, the first complaint filed by the Ministry of Justice [was against the center] after it spotted ads about the Conventional Justice Center even offering membership in the Egyptian National Arbitration Court. The ministry will tackle all centers that abuse the law”, said Judge Khaled Araq.
Amer’s revelations about other centers cannot be denied. Their ads fill Facebook.
For instance, the so-called Geneva Center for International Arbitration advertises a course with the slogan: “Work in the diplomatic corps; in embassies, consulates, councils, and commissions.”
A.H. is a graduate of the Faculty of Economics and Political Science. He was enticed to join one such course. He told us: “We are in a country that revers membership cards.”
Dr. Yahya Jamal, constitutional expert and former deputy prime minister, confirmed to both reporters that “arbitrators have no legal immunity” and that abusing judicial titles and logos by non-judges was a crime punishable by law. Jamal also pointed out that the cards issued by some arbitration centers break the law and as such they should not be granted to non-members of the judiciary.
However, the Geneva Center, whose Board of Trustees is headed by Dr. Jamal, grants the same titles as the Conventional Justice Center, both reporters have documented. They attended a course held by the center in Dokki between June 14 and 18 against a fee of LE 1200. At the end of the course, they received a certificate bearing the title “Diplomatic and Consular Relations Adviser” and another certificate with the same title bearing the logo of the Arab-European Chamber of Commerce.
“Diplomatic Immunity” is what the Egyptian-African Center advertises. We visited the center on Faisal Street in Giza. It displays permit no. 3813. We enrolled in a course there.
The head of the center, who identified himself as Judge Mohammed, said the membership card cost as follows: LE 1500 for Judge” and LE 2500 for “Member of the Egyptian Judges Club”. He claimed these cards grant bearers “diplomatic immunity”.
The conditions and requirements regulating the diplomatic corps in Egypt do not mention “Diplomatic and Consular Relations Adviser”. This is inconsistent with the Geneva Center’s advertisements, which claim that its sessions are a legitimate pathway to working in the diplomatic corps.
The title “Adviser” in the Egyptian diplomatic corps is a grade stipulated in Article 3 of the diplomatic corps law of 1982 and its 2009 amendments.
Ambassador Bader al-Ati believes that adding the word “Adviser” next to “Diplomatic Conflicts” is one way to manipulate the concept of “diplomatic adviser”. “There is no diplomatic immunity to those who are not officially in the diplomatic corps of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs,” he added.
According to Article 71 of the Bar Association Law of 1983 and its 2008 amendments “It is prohibited for lawyers to use in their practice any advertisements, inducements and intermediaries, to suggest having any influence or connection, real or otherwise.” The law also prohibits lawyers from displaying on their official letterhead or office signs any title other than the scientific title, which court they can plea before. They can also use any reference to previous posts.
However, on Facebook and on the website of the so-called International Arbitration Center, Sameh Ashour, head of the Bar Association is named as the president. The page displays photos of him also as the head of the Arab International Arbitration Center. Among other pictures is a snapshot of Ashour’s official business card naming him as “Judge and head of the Arab International Arbitration Center”.
During a visit by both reporters to the office of the International Arbitration Center on April 29, 2014 at the housing compound of the Cairo University faculty members, the receptionist confirmed that all cards and certificates issued by the center bear Ashour’s signature. They showed samples of both documents. The trainee pays LE 1500 in fees. For that, he/she gets a certificate with the title of “diplomatic relations adviser”. Trainees outside of Egypt can also attend the session via Internet and receive cards via courier in exchange for LE 3,000.
Among the photos displayed on the page of the International Arbitration Center on 20 January 2013 is one of an ID cards that the center said showed the possibility of having the title of Arbitration Adviser” on official national ID cards.
The card in question, had a blurred name on it, but it bore the date 10-2011 and the title of “International Arbitration Adviser”. The card was valid until 17-10-2018.
Mohammed al-Shaar, director of Social Solidarity in Giza, confirmed that Sameh Ashour was on the Board of Trustees of the International Arbitration Center as proven in documents at the Social Solidarity Directorate.
For his part, Ashour denied any ties to the arbitration centers, saying the cards and certificates were not genuine. He then cut the conversation short.
The Bar Association is also cooperating with the arbitration centers that abuse the law, as documented by both reporters. Despite a circular issued and signed by Ashour last October banning the issuance of any cards or certificates bearing the name or address of the Bar Association, the circular did stop the Bar Association from continuing to do business with the centers that are violating the law. This is in violation of its own bylaws as is the case with the Geneva Arbitration Center whose ads even are displayed at the Bar Association headquarters.
A field visit also revealed that some lawyers use the title “International Arbitration Judge” on a placard next to their office entrance as is the case of a lawyer working with the Court of Cassation, the Constitutional Court, and the Supreme Administrative Court.
Ibrahim Elias, member of the General Union of Lawyers, said the intent of the circular was to prevent cards from bearing the name of the Bar Association. “Sameh Ashour owns an arbitration center that grants cards with these titles, bearing his name in his personal capacity.”
For his part, Dr. Mahmoud Kbeish, former dean of the Faculty of Law at Cairo University, stressed that the law regulating legal practice bans lawyers from using any judicial title even if the lawyer is a former judge.
The centers mentioned earlier tried to give some sort of credibility to their activities, by promoting cooperation protocols with other centers or wining accreditation from local or international official bodies.
At the Geneva Center, the person in charge said the trainees could obtain cards that are certified by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, allowing them to obtain work abroad. However, this was denied by the ministry’s spokesperson.
The European University is one of the names that Geneva Center claims to be cooperating with. This means that trainees can obtain certificates bearing the name and logo of this university.
However, a simple internet search revealed that the color of the university’s logo as shown on the certificate that one of the two reporters obtained is different from the real logo of the university, which has branches in Switzerland, Spain and Germany. Furthermore, arbitration and investment disputes are not among the courses it offers.
The name of Cairo University was also associated with certificates issued by some arbitration centers, including the Geneva Center.
In addition, the same center had advertised that Cairo University professors present training workshops there, including Dr. Ahmad Abul Wafa, professor of international law. However, Abul Wafa denied having taught at the Geneva Center and said: “Perhaps I went there once but never went back again.”
Dr. Samiha Qaliouby, professor of Commercial Law at Cairo University, gave the same answer. She said she stopped teaching at the center shortly after she began training there. She denied any knowledge of the cards issued by the center.
For its part, Cairo University seized a number of certificates issued by the arbitration centers in question, bearing the university logo, and referred them to the Public Prosecution, according to Dr. Jaber al-Nassar, president of Cairo University.
Nassar said the university administration was surprised when dozens of citizens requested their certificates to be accredited by the university, based on the center’s advertisements. Nassar warned the university professors against dealing with any of those centers to avoid undermining the reputation and credibility of the university.
The Cairo Governorate also had its share of cooperating with those centers. Amer, president of the Conventional Justice Center and the International Arbitration Center, signed a protocol with the governorate to train its staff on international arbitration. The closing ceremony was attended by Deputy Governor Mohammad Ayman Abdel Tawab.
Abdel Tawab said: “The president of the Conventional Justice Institute came to the governorate [office] and asked us to be at the sessions. We did not know at the time that his institute was involved in violations. Before the second training session from Oct. 24 to 27, 2014, the governorate issued a decision to stop dealing with the institute because of these violations.”
Tawab’s remarks contradict what both reporters have concluded; that the governor’s decision to suspend the institute’s activities was issued on April 14, 2014 but that at the same time, he wrote to the West Cairo Directorate, requesting the decision to be put into effect on September 1, 2014.
Despite the request, the institute concluded a cooperation protocol with the governorate, and continued to operate, even on Dec. 14, when both reporters visited the institute and saw governorate staff being trained.
The Egyptian-African Center has resorted to another trick. It claims that the Ministry of Justice recognizes his center along with others similar in nature. Judge Mohammed, the person in charge of the center, claims that his cards and certificates are accredited by the Ministry of Justice and the Arab League. However, Judge Khaled Araq denies the ministry has any dealings with those centers. And Egypt’s permanent envoy to the Arab League, Ambassador Hani, has stressed that the organization does not recognize these certificates.
The same applies to the International Arbitration Center which bears the name of Sameh Ashour. On its website and Facebook page, the center states that cooperation protocols are in line with the Ministry of Justice. The center also publishes the list of regulations governing its work, with the “approval” of Judge Mahmoud Abul Leil, the former Minister of Justice, on 25/9/2004.
However, a thorough examination of the list shows that the center has no right to grant certificates carrying diplomatic titles or logos similar to the ones used by judges.
Despite all these revelations, the Ministry of Social Solidarity is distancing itself from these violations. Khaled Sultan, head of the Central Division of Associations and Unions at the Ministry, said the ministry refuses to register arbitration associations that have activities interfering with the work of judges and diplomats. “The existing associations obtained their permits from the Civil Associations Directorates in the provinces,” Sultan said.
Sultan admitted that the ministry’s role is limited to legal approval of centers licensed by those directorates, but he refused to disclose the number of arbitration associations nationwide sanctioned by the ministry.
Issam Berhamy, Head of the West Cairo Civil Associations Directorate, responded by saying the Ministry of Social Solidarity had knowledge of all associations licensed in all governorates.
Hassan Ismail, deputy head of the West Cairo Civil Associations Directorate, stressed that his department would not act against any associations unless a complaint is filed against. He adds: “It is difficult to regularly inspect and oversee all associations at once.”
However, this is inconsistent with the fact that there are over 15 arbitration centers licensed by the West Cairo Directorate.
Action against centers that abuse the law is among the responsibilities of the Interior Ministry but only after a complaint has been filed against one of them, says Brig. Gen. Assem al-Dahesh, head of counterfeiting and forgery at the Public Finances Investigations. Dahesh admitted that his department has information about unlawful activity by international arbitration centers, but declined to name them.
In an attempt to close the loopholes in laws governing these arbitration centers, former Justice Minister Mohammed Abdel-Aziz al-Jundi issued a decree in 2011 to organize the classification of arbitration verdicts in court records. These verdicts cannot be deposited until due diligence is made to verify if any of these centers did not violate public order in Egypt.
Despite all government attempts to counter these violations it seems that profiteers running centers that are working as civil associations will always find a way to circumvent the law.
The solution, as Judge Khaled Araq said, is to amend the arbitration law in the next parliamentary cycle. This is what the Arbitration Affairs Division of the Ministry of Justice is trying to do; to unify arbitration activities under a clear umbrella. Among its tasks would be training and licensing arbitrators and setting lists of eligible entities to prevent anyone from abusing legal loopholes to sell illusions to Egyptians seeking fame and power.
This investigation was completed with support from Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) – www.arij.net