Barely a few months ago it seemed unthinkable that Hosni Mubarak, the president who ruled Egypt unchallenged for 30 years, would ever have to answer for crimes he allegedly committed. Yesterday, the Egyptian revolutionaries who toppled the autocratic ruler earlier this year got their day in court.
Judge Ahmed Refaat, the head of the Egyptian Criminal Court, charged Mubarak with conspiring to kill over 800 protesters and abusing power to amass wealth. The former president pleaded “not guilty.” “I totally deny all those charges,” said the former president.
If convicted of ordering his security forces to kill Egyptian demonstrators to prolong three decades of rule, Mubarak faces 15 years in prison or the death penalty. For abusing power to amass wealth by corrupt means, he and his two sons, who have been named co-defendants, face five- to 15-year sentences.
Burden of proof
But convicting Mubarak may prove challenging. Usama Saraya, former editor-in-chief of the semi-official Al Ahram newspaper and a Mubarak loyalist, argues that it is not clear who gave the orders to crush the protesters. “It would not be difficult to prove that President Mubarak has not been criminally involved in killing those protesters if the trial maintained fairness,” Saraya said.
Saraya expects that calling such witnesses as Defense Minister Mohamed Hussein Tantawi would prove that Mubarak is not guilty. He believes, if Tantawi tells the court what took place in the days leading up to Mubarak’s resignation, he will say Mubarak did not give the orders. Tantawi now presides over the ruling military council.
Shady Taha, the vice president of the liberal Al-Ghad Party, disagreed. “I think it will not help Mubarak. It will [work] against him. What we are hearing from the military is that they received orders from Mubarak to shoot the protesters but they did not obey those orders,” he said.
Trial as stepping Stone
No matter whether Mubarak will eventually be convicted or acquitted, some experts say simply putting him on trial is paramount to the revolution’s future.
Habib Nassar is the director of the Middle East and North Africa program at the International Center for Transitional Justice in New York. For him, the trial is a necessity, but he stresses that it has to be a just trial.
“I do believe that in order to ensure a peaceful transition to democracy and the rule of law in Egypt, they need a justice approach not a revenge approach. If the Egyptian revolution wants to break […] with the past injustices, a fair trial and observing due process will be the first step toward democracy,” said Nassar.
Justice versus will of the people
No ruler of modern Egypt has ever been tried before the Egyptian people. Yesterday, Egyptians were able turn on their TV sets and see a once-untouchable president caged, lying flat on his back on a hospital gurney. For Usama Saraya, the former editor, it was an important and telling moment.
“As a person who was engaged in the political life under President Mubarak - whom I support - I was happy to see him in court because his appearance reflected his respect [for the] law and his courage, because he did not try to flee from Egypt or escape his leadership responsibilities.”
Still, Saraya believes that there exists a sharp divide on the Egyptian street over Mubarak’s trial, pointing out that the pitiful setting in which the former leader was observed could actually earn him sympathy and support.
Despite the courtroom drama, Shady Taha of the Al-Ghad Party says most Egyptians do want to see justice done.
“If you [talked to] family members of the young protestors that were killed on the 25th of January, you will not feel any sympathy [toward Mubarak], but putting all the feelings aside, we want to see a fair trial, and that is the position of the majority of the people,” Taha said.
A warning for other autocrats?
While most revolutionaries in Egypt celebrate Mubarak facing justice, rulers in Libya, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere in the Middle East are certain to take heed. Samer Shehata, a professor of political science at Georgetown University, points out that, after all, Mubarak is the first Arab leader to stand a trial for crimes committed against his own people. That alone, says he, serves as a “terrible precedent for unaccountable dictators, kings and princes.”
Habib Nassar of the International Center for Transitional Justice says that while Mubarak’s trial sends a stern warning to other authoritarian leaders in the Middle East, it is imperative to ensure that Mubarak gets a trial that is fair and conducted according to international standards. Otherwise, he adds, other dictators in the region would be able to dismiss it as political revenge.