hether the trial of a once powerful leader in the Arab world signifies a good yield for the spring of revolution remains to be seen. But the appearance of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak in the dock during Egyptian TV’s Ramadan special, lying on a stretcher in prison fatigues was not a sight to miss. Spectators, despite initial stages of jeering, were stunned. Egyptian stockbrokers were evidently keeping their eyes on the former leader, given the shedding of value on the stock exchange.
There was certainly much anticipation before hand. The figures of how many military and security personnel would be required to secure the scene of the trial were debated: 8000 or 5000? How many tanks would be required? Where would it be held? The Cairo Convention centre, or perhaps a police academy? In the end, it was the latter that held sway.
Others are keeping company with the accused former leader. His sons Alaa and Gamal Mubarak are accused of abusing power and amassing wealth. Former Interior Minister Habib al-Adly and six aides are being tried for conspiring to kill protesters while business tycoon Hussein Salem is the only one in absentia being tried for corruption.
Trying high ranking leaders for their crimes is never an easy task. There still remains a school of thought amongst lawyers that putting a leader in the dock for high crimes renders statecraft problematic. The personalised nature of charges obscures the complexity of how decisions are made. But even more striking is how to satisfactorily make a figure account for colossal offences – the ones where thousands perish at the hands of a state policy – that were a product of a vast system. ‘Mubarak,’ as Tony Karon mentions in Time (Aug 3), ‘did not create this regime; the regime, based in Egypt’s armed forces since they overthrew the monarchy in 1952, created Mubarak, choosing the former Air Force chief to lead it in the crisis that followed the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981.’
There was even doubt that Mubarak would ever come to trial. The extensive financial involvement of Saudi Arabia in the Egyptian economy has its various caveats. One, as reported in Albawaba.com (Apr 13), was keeping ‘Mubarak away from courtrooms and jails’. The concern often voiced is that no Arab government will want to see the spectacle of a prominent leader in the dock, lest it stimulate further protests in the name of reform. There were even conflicting reports about the freezing of Saudi Prince Bin Talal’s enormous land purchase in Upper Egypt, a purchase that would secure him one percent of Egypt’s total land.
The unsatisfactory nature of the trial is already becoming evident. Mubarak, for one, is only being tried for a brief stint of supposed criminality – the two days in January in which he was said to have given the order to fire on protesters. Added to this brief are charges of corruption (a gas deal with Israel), an all too convenient charge to lodge from accusers who are themselves not averse to such behaviour. Thirty years is an eternity in politics, and to have it shrunk so drastically into this shallow corridor of action is a glaring failing.
While the trial will enable a sense of catharsis to be achieved, the soberly critical will be wary about its long term implications. It is hard to establish the virtues of a trial where the civic institutions to acknowledge the value of such proceedings do not exist. The trial was itself a gift from the military junta, a gesture that pacifies an incensed population without yielding power to them. Egyptian billionaire Naguib Sawiris has told Bloomberg television (Aug 3) that the trial in itself is no complete panacea for the country’s chronic problems.
The words of Jordan’s former foreign minister capture the relevance of such matters as the Mubarak trial. ‘One cannot expect this to be a linear process or to be done overnight,’ he explained to Thomas Friedman of the New York Times. ‘There were no real political parties, no civil society institutions ready to take over any of these countries [Yemen, Libya, Syria, Egypt and Tunisia]. I do not like to call this the “Arab Spring”. I prefer to call it the “Arab Awakening”, and it is going to play out over the next 10 to 15 years before it settles down.’
Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: email@example.com