NYT Room For Debate: Mubarak’s Trial

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A piece I wrote recently appeared in the New York Times “Room for Debate” section. Here is the piece along with ones from the other contributors. The question was:

Is this trial a necessary step on the path toward democratization and reconciliation in Egypt? Or, depending on the verdict, does it risk re-igniting popular anger that leads to more anarchy or a violent military crackdown?

Why Egyptians Want Him Tried

Nathan J. Brown is a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University and nonresident senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

There are shelves of books on “transitional justice.” But rather than reading them, Egyptians seem to be turning to their own history and politics for instruction. Thus, the trial of Hosni Mubarak, if it occurs, is unlikely to be a textbook case of how to handle former leaders accused of misdeeds. Most international experts on the subject would likely find the Egyptian process too backward-looking, opaque, improvised and overly focused on punishment rather than truth.

But that may be beside the point. To understand the issues in the abstract, isolated from the society and the political system in which they arose, may be unfair and unrealistic. Seen in an Egyptian context, the insistence on trying Mubarak in Egyptian courts has an unavoidable political logic.

First, the revolution itself succeeded precisely because Egyptians with a wide variety of political inclinations and beliefs were able to coalesce around a single demand: Mubarak must go. Having personalized the agenda in January they can hardly turn their backs on the identification of Mubarak as a villain now.

Second, the revolution was not simply motivated by a desire for freedom but also a feeling that many leaders were fleecing the country. In Egypt, leniency is taken to mean refusing to recover ill-gotten gains. While many Egyptians have wildly overestimated the sums involved, they are not likely to be satisfied with half-measures.

Third, the arrest and prosecution of Mubarak and several members of his family has become something of a proxy for a struggle between the revolutionary coalition and the military junta. While relations between army generals and street leaders are still correct — and both sides anxious to avoid a full confrontation — nerves are fraying. The revolutionaries are still uncertain that their movement has triumphed and they remain very suspicious of any attempts to postpone their demands. They can still rally supporters around the issue of serving justice to old regime figures and have thus used it to goad a dawdling military leadership into action.

There is a final aspect of the Mubarak prosecution that has, so far, escaped much notice: It has been handled by the regular judiciary. There is no special tribunal, no public inquiry, and no new law. Egyptians have seen such devices used in their country — and very heavily abused — after previous changes of rulers and regimes. To prosecute Mubarak in a normal criminal court will be a challenge for Egypt’s legal system, but Egyptians are tired of attempts to make end runs around justice.

A Fair Trial, Not a Show Trial

Nadia Kamel, who lives in Cairo, is the director of “Salata Baladi” (“An Egyptian Salad”), a documentary about growing up in a multiethnic family in Cairo.

The media is suggesting that tension and confusion is growing between radical anti-Mubarak people (angry, vindictive and eager for a quick, violent and ruthless trial) and others who are more moderate (a little less angry, a little less anti-Mubarak and a little less blinded by hatred).

I actually don’t think that the conflict centers around whether the former dictator should be tried or not, or whether he should be executed or imprisoned. This debate doesn’t seem to pit vindictiveness against forgiveness, but rather, deceit and despair against hope and perseverance.

Reality bites: decision-making in post-Mubarak Egypt is in the hands of agents that are neither loyal to democracy nor to the aspirations set by the people’s revolution. We are feeling the convulsions of distrust coming back and the tremors of terror creeping in, but one must remember here that this form of psychological warfare was the trademark of the old regime’s means of control pre-revolution. Not surprisingly, it’s remained the primary tool for clinging to power and undermining any real revolutionary change.

In order for this nation to start healing, the collective wish is for a just, fair and transparent trial, not one that will just humiliate Mubarak for symbolic reasons. A fair trial is considered a serious and necessary step in the long process of dismantling a very complicated web of corruption and terror.

A harsh symbolic trial, wherein all the blame would be placed on Mubarak, could exempt the misdeeds of the revolution-unfriendly old regime allies in power today. The complex root system of the old regime are essentially trying to stage Mubarak’s trial for this reason.

What is called “chaos” in the Supreme Council’s language, a language bolstered by media sensationalism, is in fact a reflection of the natural process of peaceful collective counseling called the dynamics of direct democracy.

Should Mubarak actually make it to the August trial date (rumors around his imminent death abound), a momentum would build around demanding due process. This would hopefully derive from a mature collective understanding that there is no single dramatic action that has or will “heal the nation” or “deliver the new Egypt.”

Rather, this trial would simply contribute to an ongoing process that is long, arduous and complex. Dissatisfaction and disagreement that could take place around the actual trial will most likely indicate a perceived swindling of the people and/or scapegoating of Mubarak himself. If the Supreme Council is looking for an excuse to crack down, then pardoning Mubarak or allowing for a mock trial of him would probably incite the appropriate reaction.

Only a just, fair and transparent trial of the former dictator will be able to start the healing process.

A Well Timed Trial, But for Whom?

Tik Root is a junior at Middlebury College in Vermont. Earlier this year he was evacuated from Egypt after five months of studying Arabic in Alexandria. Upon returning, he started Mideast Reports, which covers events in the region.

Mubarak’s trial is similar to Saddam Hussein’s in that, by itself, it is unlikely to affect the long-term trend toward either chaos or stability. However, there will be significant short-term implications.

The trial is the biggest test yet for Egypt’s maligned justice system. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which now runs Egypt, has been widely criticized for its lack of transparency and insistence on trying civilians in military courts. Mubarak’s trial is an opportunity for the Supreme Council to prove that it can openly implement due process. If the effort fails, Egyptians could start to seriously doubt the ability of the Supreme Council to hand power over to an elected legislator later in the year.

The Supreme Council is known to use Mubarak and other top regime figures as a way of temporarily deflecting public criticism away from itself. Mubarak’s trial is sure to provide a distraction for the many Egyptians who are growing wary of recent military misdeeds like virginity tests. The distraction will buy the Supreme Council time to solidify its own interests before relinquishing power.

The trial will also take place as candidates gear up for the parliamentary elections, which are scheduled for September. Perhaps the Supreme Council is hoping that the political rhetoric will focus on fixing the problems left behind by the old regime, rather than the blunders of the transitional government.

The timing of the trial even favors Mubarak. It begins on the first week of Ramadan, a month long Muslim holiday consisting of daily fasts and religious observance. It is traditionally a time of forgiveness and mercy, when, among other things, prisoners are often showed leniency.

Ramadan is also prime shopping season and often makes or breaks a business’s profits for the year. It will be hard for the average Egyptian to justify paralyzing the economy with further demonstrations. If this hesitancy is combined with the theory that a fasting population is harder to mobilize, the result could very well be a subdued public reaction to the trial, and less pressure on the Supreme Council. That said, Egyptians have already shown a willingness to take to the streets unexpectedly.

I think that the vast majority of Egyptians are hoping that Mubarak will be convicted. In the short run, this common goal should be a uniting force. But in the long run, Egypt faces so many other potentially divisive challenges that the effects of the trial are likely to fade.

For now, a fair and transparent trial would be the ultimate victory for the millions of men, women and children who are struggling to shed Mubarak-era tactics.

Will Mubarak’s Trial Unite or Divide Egypt?

Rachel Bronson is the vice president for programs and studies at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. She is the author of “Thicker Than Oil: America’s Uneasy Partnership with Saudi Arabia.”

The coming “Trial of the Century” of Hosni Mubarak and his sons Gamal and Alaa is a deep blow to democracy and stability in the Middle East. It represents a derailment of the Arab Spring.

It’s not a step in the right direction.

It is understandable why many support a trial. It would be cathartic, hold the Egyptian leader to account, and re-establish the principle that no one in Egypt is above the law, not even the president. This principle has been subverted in the Middle East for too long.

But a trial is more about righting the past, and less about charting a course for the future. What the Arab world needs more than anything is an example of a former ex-leader dying peacefully in his bed, in his own country. That, more than anything, would make future peaceful leadership transitions possible.

Look across the Arab world. Only in the monarchies does power transfer peacefully – from father to son, or brother to brother, staying within tight familial relationships. In the republics no meaningful institutions are in place to transition power from one leader to another. There is only one, ONE, example where this is not true: tiny Lebanon.

To help the Arab Spring blossom into a summer of greater accountability and transparency, the Arab world needs an example — and Hosni Mubarak could be the best one — of a leader who leaves power under popular pressure, and is given a dignified exit. Although President Mubarak clearly overstayed his welcome, and his domestic police force was horrifically brutal, he should be celebrated as having done the right thing in the end. A trial sends exactly the opposite message.

For these same reasons, the recent arrest warrants against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi and his sons for crimes against humanity issued by International Criminal Court prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo are not helpful. If the international community wants Qaddafi to leave office, promising him a future of international trials is not the right inducement.

Critics will say that if the Egyptians let Mubarak off scot-free, or if the international community gives Qaddafi a pass, it will only encourage others to rape and pillage their countries. Neither the Egyptian people nor the international community should establish a retirement home for repressors. But this overlooks the main reason dictators fight so hard to stay in power in the first place. They fight because they know that if they lose their grip on power, a future of war crime tribunals, imprisonment of their family, exile, or assassination is assured.

The better course for Egypt and the broader Middle East is a celebrated and lionized Mubarak. It is not a lasting image of him languishing in a prison hospital or, worse, standing trial.

A Divisive, Dangerous Distraction

David Schenker is the Afuzien fellow and the director of the program on Arab politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He is the author, most recently, of “Egypt’s Enduring Challenges: Shaping the Post-Mubarak Environment.”

Revolutions require that heads roll. Sometimes this implies the guillotine. In other cases — like Tunisia, after which erstwhile President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali sought refuge abroad — leadership decapitation has been more figurative.

Egypt today is in the midst of its own post-revolution purge. Dozens of senior officials and business associates of the toppled Mubarak regime are being investigated, tried, and convicted of some very serious charges. Atop the list of regime minions, the longtime minister of interior, Habib el-Adly, will soon stand trial for ordering the killing of some 840 people during the revolution. If convicted, he’ll face the gallows.

Unlike the trial of Adly, who engendered widespread antipathy for his role in the repressive state security apparatus, the impending trial of Hosni Mubarak — for allegedly giving Adly his deadly orders — does not have unanimous public support in Egypt.

Indeed, notwithstanding 30 years of authoritarian rule, many Egyptians clearly have some residual sympathy for the dying, broken, onetime war hero. Sure, attach his assets, the logic goes, but why further humiliate Mubarak with a public trial?

On the other hand, the young activists who occupied Tahrir Square and felled the regime are demanding a transparent proceeding. And if they don’t get one, they’ve threatened to reoccupy downtown Cairo, further undermining an already tenuous economic recovery.

The arbitrator in this debate is the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which has governed Egypt since the regime fell in February. While there’s little doubt the Supreme Council would have preferred that Mubarak avoid legal exposure, it had little choice. With a rising chorus in the streets demanding blood, the military authority felt compelled to offer him up.

Given Mubarak’s health, it is unclear when or if there will ever be a hearing. To be sure, though, should the trial proceed, it will unlikely satisfy anyone. The only consensus issue underpinning the revolution was the necessity to end the Mubarak regime. Now, for some Egyptians, anything short of Mubarak’s execution will be a cause for remobilization while for others, the whole process will be seen as a gratuitous exercise in retribution. In any event, it will put more stress on an already taxed Egyptian military managing the transition.

After 30 years of authoritarianism, Egyptians have a legitimate right to closure. With all the political, economic, and social challenges ahead for Egypt, however, a tribunal focusing on the past could prove to be a divisive distraction. Egyptians already have Mubarak’s head. At this point, there’s really no need for the guillotine.

Clarity, Dignity, Justice

Khaled Fahmy is chairman of the history department at the American University in Cairo.

For 30 years, Hosni Mubarak had been ruling Egypt like a police state ostensibly to be able to deal with the threats of terrorism and of radical Islamic fundamentalism.

Gripped by the fear of Islamists, many in Egypt and abroad gave Mubarak the green light he sought. However, he misused this authorization and allowed his security forces to act with impunity. He did indeed deliver some semblance of stability, but it was a stability that came at a high cost of economic stagnation and political corruption. Most seriously, his regime committed grave human rights violations with thousands being held without trial and countless others losing their dignity, their health and sometimes their lives in his torture chambers.

When millions of Egyptians revolted in January against Mubarak, they were revolting principally against this miserable policy that pitted security against liberty and private rights. It was not a coincidence, therefore, that people decided to stage their protest on Jan. 25, for this was “Police Day,” a national holiday that honored the security forces. Nor was it a coincidence for people to raise their voices shouting, “Bread, liberty, human dignity!” on Day 1 of the revolution. The Egyptian revolution was primarily a rights revolution demanding liberty and justice.

Putting Mubark on trial, therefore, has been a primary demand of the millions of Egyptians who revolted against a man whom they felt had robbed them of their own country. The thousands of relatives whose loved ones had perished in Mubarak’s dungeons will certainly be satisfied to see him on the dock. Mubarak’s numerous torture victims must also be looking forward to having their day in court.

The decision by the prosecutor general to put Mubarak on trial for conspiring to kill demonstrators will also be welcomed by the relatives of the more than 800 people who were murdered during the 18 days of the revolution. However, it is not clear if the former president will also be charged with other crimes, most importantly torture and other gross human rights abuses. Moreover, the evidence on which the conspiracy to kill demonstrators charge had been made, and the whole process of how Mubarak in his Sharm el-Sheikh hospital is currently being interrogated, are shrouded in mystery.

The generals who are effectively ruling Egypt now might have thought that putting Mubarak on trial would stem the wave of dissatisfaction against them. However, Egypt’s peaceful revolution was not for blood or revenge, but for dignity and justice. Neither of these two lofty principles are being properly served by the inconsistent and opaque manner in which the generals are chaperoning the country in its delicate transition to democracy.

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