Every week, The WorldPost asks an expert to shed light on a topic driving headlines around the world. Today, we look at the situation in Egypt and former President Hosni Mubarak’s murder trial.
In a controversial verdict, an Egyptian court dropped murder charges against the country's former President Hosni Mubarak last Saturday. The ousted strongman was on trial for the killing of 239 protesters during the 2011 revolution against his 30-year-rule.
The prospect that 86-year-old Mubarak would walk free sparked both celebration and despair. While the courtroom erupted in cheers, relatives of the slain demonstrators waiting outside fell to the ground in anguish. Following the decision, thousands of protesters headed back to Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the 2011 protests, and at least two were killed in clashes with police. Prosecutors are appealing Saturday’s verdict. Another court ruling on Tuesday further exacerbated tensions. In the third mass death sentence this year, a court ordered the execution of 188 people for a deadly attack on a police station last summer. The ruling is pending approval from Egypt's highest religious authority and will most likely be appealed.
The WorldPost spoke to Khaled Fahmy, history professor at the American University in Cairo, about the significance of the latest trials and the state of post-revolution Egypt.
Why were the charges against Mubarak dismissed?
They were dismissed on technical grounds. The judge argued that Mubarak’s name was not initially added to the prosecutor’s list of defendants in the original trial, but only later because of popular pressure. So he decided that since the original prosecutor had apparently not been confident enough to charge Mubarak, there was no point in investigating whether he was guilty or not of the charges related to the deaths of protesters.
How has the judge’s ruling been received in Egypt?
While this was in one sense a trial of Mubarak and the other defendants, it was also a trial of the whole revolution.
Like in any revolution, there were people who supported it and others’ who didn’t. Some people welcomed this verdict as an indictment of the whole revolution. They are not only people connected to the old regime, but members of the public who fault the revolution for increasing insecurity and for the economic downturn. They don’t love Mubarak or want him back, but many people are tired of the years of turmoil, the dire economic situation and the threat of domestic and international terrorism. Mubarak is a symbol of the anti-revolution.
Supporters of the revolution are dismayed by the verdict. It is an important sign -- not the first and it will not be the last -- of the success of the counter-revolution since (current President) Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi took over. There has been an active movement to arrest the revolutionaries and roll back every achievement of the revolution. Now, even Mubarak may no longer be behind bars.
What’s the current Egyptian government’s stance?
Officially, the government says it does not comment on judicial proceedings, but I regard the verdict as sign that the government is barely even keeping up the pretense of an independent judiciary. The government is willing to sacrifice the whole judiciary for the sake of stability -- and the trade-off is a fallacy.
How does the legal system’s treatment of Mubarak and his cronies differ from that of Muslim Brotherhood supporters?
When hundreds have been sentenced to death for the killing of several police officers, but not one person has been found guilty for the deaths of hundreds of protesters, the difference is pretty clear.
The mass trials were a reckless move. People have no faith in the independence of the judiciary. This is dangerous -- even in an authoritarian system it's important that the judiciary has a semblance of impartiality, otherwise people take the law into their own hands.
I don’t think the death sentences will be carried out. But even if they are commuted to life sentences or overturned on appeal, people’s lives have been ruined and many through no fault of their own. The mass verdicts affected all kinds of people, not just Muslim Brotherhood supporters, including Christians, minors, even some people who had died before the trial. This was a travesty of justice on many levels.
Will anyone ever be prosecuted for the killing of protesters during the 2011 revolution?
The relatives of hundreds of people killed during the revolution still hope for justice. Egypt will see no stability in the long run unless we have a proper process of transitional justice -- firstly, by acknowledging what happened, then bringing perpetrators to justice and compensation for the victims. We’re not even at the first stage yet.
The latest trial actually took us back several steps. A previous ruling established that people had died, and said there was compelling but insufficient evidence they were killed by police fire, but that it was unclear who issued the orders to shoot. Now the whole issue of what happened to the hundreds who died is treated as an irrelevance. The government is concerned with exonerating Mubarak, not finding out who killed these people.
I think the next stage will be a concerted effort by the government to provide an answer to this question, which will be to blame the Muslim Brotherhood. We will see suggestions that the events of 2011 were not a revolution, but a conspiracy manipulated by the Muslim Brotherhood.
Will people accept this answer?
Yes, because this government already killed nearly 1,000 people during protests against President Mohammed Morsi’s ouster last summer, and got away with it. Why would they not get away with a lesser lie? People are willing to believe anything to avoid seeing the reality in front of them -- that their fellow citizens have been killed and arrested based on their beliefs. I’m afraid of what will happen when people wake up to how deeply morally implicated they are in turning a blind eye to the treatment of their neighbors, their colleagues, even their loved ones, just because they are members of the Muslim Brotherhood. This realization will be a psychological shock on a national scale.
How does the current Egyptian regime to compare that under Mubarak?
We are in a much worse situation that under Mubarak. The counter-revolution has won spectacularly. The current regime has killed more Egyptians than under the previous three regimes. And this has happened with the complicity and acquiescence of a huge segment of the population.
Did the 2011 revolution change anything at all?
Things can never go back to exactly what they were. Things have happened, red lines have been crossed, taboos have been violated, and we can’t just put the genie back in the bottle. Politics is back in Egypt. People breathe, think, talk politics all the time. The revolution opened up big questions about things like the role of the army and the relationship between religion and politics, and they exploded in our faces.
But we did something in Tahrir that has never been done in the history of Egypt, going all the way back to the pyramids. We toppled a president, even though we did not topple a regime. The current regime is afraid of people fully realizing their own power. That is why the government is trying to rewrite the history of the revolution and is telling Egyptians that they were manipulated rather than causing change by their own free will.
But hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets during the revolution and they were asking a fundamental question -- whose state is this? We want the police to protect, not torture; the army to protect our borders, not kill us in our cities; the judiciary to protect the citizens, not the government. We revolted to say we cannot go on with this. The government drew completely the opposite lessons from the revolution. They rejected reform and now contest the the history of the revolution itself.