Egypt’s lawyers face tough year ahead but remain optimistic for a free 2012

International lawyers in Egypt are braced for a tough year in the wake of the recent revolution, but believe the ­benefits of a freer country will prevail over hardship.

Protests against the Egyptian government began on 25 January this year and culminated in president Hosni Mubarak resigning on 11 February, to be replaced by a caretaker military ­government.

At the height of the protests – during which an estimated 365 protesters were killed – courts and banks shut and phone lines and internet access were cut, leading to chaos for law firms.

“We closed the office when the government cut off access to the internet,” one partner at a Cairo firm. “All our emergency plans went out the window; we hadn’t anticipated that the regime would block internet access and mobile phone services.”

Many lawyers attended the protests. DLA Matouk Bassiouny partner Omar Bassiouny said he experienced the government’s harsh suppression tactics.

He said: “On Friday 28 January I was slightly injured by the riot police. I also swallowed an enormous amount of tear gas and passed out for a couple of minutes. I’m not an activist but I elected to go down with my wife and friends after witnessing the regime’s brutality on the first day of the protest.

“On the Friday we were on the 6th of October Bridge, walking towards Tahrir Square, peacefully chanting ’Selmeya Selmeya’ [’Peaceful, Peaceful’]. The brutality we experienced was totally out of proportion and unjustified. And this was a protest ­coming out of Zamalek [a wealthy neighbourhood]; I can’t imagine what they did to people in less fortunate areas.”

In the aftermath of the revolution spirits are high, as lawyers envisage a fairer Egypt.

One partner at a Cairo firm said: “We’ve lost out on mandates many times in the past because instructions were not awarded on the basis of skill but rather on contacts. So we’ve lost ­nothing with these changes.”

Bassiouny said: “I feel like I own the country once again.”

Egypt’s stock exchange has been closed for more than a month. Its ­reopening has been delayed several times. At the time of writing it is expected to reopen on
6 March.

Work levels are expected to drop throughout 2011. One lawyer estimates the country is running at 60 per cent capacity, but there is hope that 2012 will be a banner year.

Michael Lacey, managing partner of SNR ­Denton’s Cairo office, said: “Of course, many large M&A deals were put off, ­but several have returned and we’re seeing investor confidence in the market. We’ve kept busy, aside from that one week when courts and government offices shut and we couldn’t bill a single hour.”

Bassiouny said that while he anticipates an improvement in the economic ­picture, he expects things to get worse first.

He said: “The economy will take time to recover. Before January I was ­working on about 14 M&A transactions. Now only around six are active because so many have been cancelled or postponed. Our capital markets group is the most affected because of the closure of [the stock exchange]. But I’m confident that ­following a transition to civil government, next year will be a record one.”