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Larbi Sadiki
Larbi Sadiki
Dr Larbi Sadiki is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter.
Egypt: The trial of the century
Mubarak's trial has divided Egyptians in how to mete out justice - but it's still too early to tell what will happen.
Last Modified: 15 Aug 2011 15:22
It is still early in the trial and there are many hurdles to overcome, such as deciding whether Mubarak should be tried in a military or civilian court [EPA]

Having made their triumphant stand in the court of history - sidelining the 1952 revolution and one of its sons, al-makhlou' ["the disgraced autocrat"] - Egyptians are now in the midst of an unfolding revolution of a different kind: seeking justice through legal trials.

The whole enterprise of seeing to it that justice is done in the legal courts faces a twofold test: how the trials of Mubarak and co proceed, and what kind of justice they deliver.

Mubarak's trial

Mubarak's trial is the buzzword in post-revolutionary Egypt. As in Tunisia, the people have yet to learn to live without their dictator: Mubarak is on the lips of the learned and the lay. And most want their former dictator tried.

Egyptians wanted Mubarak tried and this they got. Since the moment Mubarak was wheeled into the courtroom's meshed cage, protests have subsided and the Military Council is breathing more easily.

All the council needs to do now is ensure that the trials go on for a long period to absorb the anger of those disillusioned with the revolution, the martyrs' families, those excluded - partly represented by the April 6 Movement - and others who have been hoping for a faster pace of change. Of course, the ideal situation for the military is that Mubarak dies, so that the case - which may yet involve much of the military's top commanders - is closed.

At one level, at least, the trial of Mubarak is an instrument of decompression. The masses that once crowded Tahrir Square are now watching the trials of the former interior minister, Habib Al 'Adli or reading about 'Alaa Mubarak and the villas he did not know he had, or Mubarak Senior's billionaire friend, Hussein Salem, who is still at large.

But what do people really want from Mubarak's trial?

This ranges from what people here call qasas - the Quranic word for justice - for more than thirty years of corruption and dictatorship, to those who want him completely humiliated and severely punished for his role in the failed oppression of the revolution's protesters, especially those killed by snipers and state-sponsored thugs.

I joined the melee in Tahrir Square on Friday night - the night when the awaited million Sufis never showed, which I will discuss in my next piece - after iftar. The placards with a noose around Mubarak's head - made famous during the protests in February - were there. Make no mistake that those carrying these banners mean business and I was told in plain Masri (the Egyptian dialect) that they want Mubarak and the symbols of his corrupt rule to be hanged in public.

The majority of the public, including former supporters, have now joined the revolution and all seem to be united in vilifying Mubarak's era, especially its corruption.

But, surprisingly, Mubarak still enjoys some support and sympathy. There is even a movement named Ehna Asfeen ya Rayyis ["O president, we are sorry"] who declare their sympathy and support for Mubarak.

A mood of 'trials'

As in Tunisia, the media and the public are having a field day disclosing new information and conducting their own assessments of the closed political chapter under the regime ancien. Except there is much reservation about the "ancien" part of the phrase. Daily, the list of who should be brought before the courts is expanded.

Here in Egypt, many are at loss as to why Suzanne Thabet, no longer referred to as Suzanne Mubarak, has escaped justice. She is viewed as the architect of the misfortune befalling the Mubaraks: she wanted Gamal president; the rest is history. The deal according to many sources is that she had to give up her wealth as a trade-off for impunity.

Gamal is the subject of public contempt and vilification owing to his role in the culture of corruption and mega deals that largely corrupted privatisation to the point that some have raised the idea of re-nationalisation of land and state-owned assets before launching reconstruction of the country's ailing economy.

By contrast, his brother 'Alaa is viewed with some sympathy - for apparently embracing religion in the past few years and for his known opposition to tawreeth, the hereditary presidency from Mohamed Hosni Mubarak to Gamal Mubarak ('Alaa's younger brother).

It will take years to reveal the full gamut of the wheeling and dealing involved in Mubarak's Egypt. Trials have just begun. They will eventually catch up with the bulk of the class of nouveaux riches who made their billions in cahoots with Gamal Mubarak, Zakaria Azmi and Ahmad Ezz, the ruling party's grandee.

Egypt finds itself drenched in a mood that reaches out for media, caricatures, poetry, slogans and even prayer as benedictions for justice to reign, and maledictions against those accused of crimes against the country's citizenry - in this case, that of the fallen regime and its head.

Yet there are a lot of loopholes in the trial of Mubarak. There is a whole debate about whether the fallen president should face a military court or stand before a civilian bench.

The argument goes along the lines that, since the moment Mubarak was assigned by Sadat to the post of deputy-president, he ceased to be a military man. But because Mubarak was deposed from power, Law 35 of 1979 introduced by Sadat does not apply to Mubarak. It stipulates restoring top generals to their military ranks at the expiry of their civilian assignments.

Of course, military courts have been the rule, not the exception, under the emergency law imposed - now lifted - since the days of Sadat. The Muslim Brotherhood, among others, faced military courts. This continues today with thousands of dissidents being tried by military courts for all kinds of allegations, including prominent dissidents such as Asma Mahfouz, active within the April 6 Movement. Her crime is apparently "bad-mouthing" those she criticises.

The rationale may be that only when tried under civilian law and through a robust and fair civilian legal process, involving a proper defence, can Mubarak's wealth held in foreign banks, especially Swiss, be recovered. Martial law would not be useful in this regard.

Crime and justice

Mubarak has the benefit of a top defence team led by lawyer Farid Al-Deeb. The lawyers defending the martyrs' families are no match for him - even at the level of the language spoken. This is what this trial has also revealed: the sad state of one of the most prestigious professions in Egypt.

The crime itself is difficult to define in this trial: complicity in or the act of abetting a murder is not the same as being the prime agent with sole responsibility for premeditating and executing murder. What makes Adli different from Mubarak - as they both face the same charges? Plus, there is the whole question of who actually murdered the protesters. Like in Tunisia, the unit of snipers deployed during the protests has vanished. They will remain a secret of both country's revolutions.

However, complicity, if proven, carries the same punishment as the act itself: the death penalty. The defence team under Al-Deeb is capable of reducing the sentence to be handed down. No one knows yet but, if given the death penalty, whether it will be commuted or suspended given the ailing health of the former president - who would live his last days under house arrest or at the International Medical Centre, where he now resides on the fifth floor's presidential wing, benefiting from unlimited access to his wife Suzanne and limited daily visits from his in-laws.

Al-Deeb's strategy, if successful, might prolong the trial. Al-Deeb wants more than 1,600 individuals to take the stand, and these include some of the country's top generals: Mohammed Tantawi, the current head of the Military Council, and maybe Sami Anan. This could drag the council into a legal showdown with Mubarak and his top and most capable lawyer, Al-Deeb. Tantawi's testimony is vital for what kind of judgment is handed down. But a public Mubarak-Tantawi showdown would be doubtful.

Furthermore, there are all kinds of uncertainties about the number of martyrs - from 800 to double that number. Al-Deeb is a tough cookie, and it is still too early to tell what the outcome will be for those wishing for the public hanging of Mubarak.

But getting justice done and feigning justice are two different things. Only time will tell what Egypt's season of trials will yield.

The trials will keep the Egyptian public busy, guessing when justice will be done. What is uncertain is not to assume so easily or so fast that Mubarak will be punished in the most severe way - which the law permits and which much of the public wishes for.

What is certain is that the brunt of the punishment will be meted out to his aides, including Habib al-Adli - and even his own son, Gamal Mubarak.

Even more certain is that the next president will not embroil family and friends in power. A just trial of the fallen regime will perhaps restore the awe of responsibility and the credibility of power to the highest office in the land.

The next president will not be a pharaoh - that is one certainty those seeking justice might find relief in, so that a new Egypt with a new beginning are given a fair go.

Larbi Sadiki is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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