Al-Ahram Weekly Online   18 - 24 October 2012
Issue No. 1119
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Abdel-Moneim Said

Justice and the revolution

The verdicts in the Battle of the Camel case were important tests of the 25 January Revolution and the rule of law in post-revolutionary Egypt, writes Abdel-Moneim Said

As a general rule, only history can be the judge of revolutions. Moreover, even if history does pass judgement, and whether this is for or against, revolutions remain the property of the past. Firstly, they have already occurred, and, secondly, and by definition, they have already overturned a previously existing order and radically changed the world around them. This alters the criteria for assessing their attendant circumstances, achievements, setbacks, or revisions, and as a result it alters the nature of any judgements.

Whatever these judgements may be, a revolution always remains a revolution, and it is always hailed as such. This is because at the very least it has hastened the wheels of history and sped the processes of change, which up until then may have been unbearably slow.

Also as a general rule, the principles of justice are above judgement, since these principles, such as freedom, dignity and other such values to which humanity aspires, are indications that the world is on course to a brighter and better future. Even if justice becomes prey to the law that applies it, it is not justice per se that is to be judged, but justice as bound by the framework of the political order that established the law and the legal system that administers it.

In spite of such shortcomings, humanity has produced no better means for bringing us closer to the ideals of justice. If, as sometimes occurs, a legal system is replaced by what some call "revolutionary legitimacy" and the instruments of this in the form of special or extraordinary courts, the result is to hand the reins of justice to human passions and instincts. Under such conditions, the regular administration of justice, founded upon the submission of evidence, corroborative testimony, rational argument and the presumption of innocence, can be regarded as just a means to preserve the status quo or as a way of shackling the revolution.

What occasions these thoughts are the recent verdicts, delivered by an Egyptian court, acquitting the defendants in the so-called "Battle of the Camel" case. This case was a legal test of both the 25 January Revolution and the principles of justice in post-revolutionary Egypt.

A given revolution can be judged by what sets it apart from others and by how far it reflects the prevalent political culture in a given society. Perhaps it was no coincidence that the Egyptian revolution took only 18 days to compel the former regime to cave in, after which the revolutionaries had to contend with the problem of establishing a new order.

However, the Egyptian revolution was not only remarkable because of its brief timespan. It was also noted for the decision it made from the outset to deal with those who had been associated with the former regime through the application of the law. This was not a coincidence. The central aim of the revolution was to establish a democratic order founded on the principle of the rule of law. The revolution could not then contradict itself and start setting up extraordinary courts that would be similar in nature to the state security, emergency and military courts and tribunals that had existed under the former regime. Had it done so, that would only have succeeded in ushering in another version of that regime.

As a result, the primary traits of the Egyptian revolution were its peaceful nature and its grassroots character, which took the form of million-strong marches that propelled calls for change when conventional processes of reform proved too sluggish or when the powers-that-be could not be budged from their lethargy.

The 25 January Revolution was also a far cry from the 23 July Revolution of 1952. That revolution had also been peaceful, and it even extended a military salute and cordial escort to the departing monarch. However, later the July Revolution introduced "treason courts" and a host of other special and extraordinary courts. By contrast, the 25 January Revolution revived the traditions of the 1919 Revolution, a mass-based revolution whose aim was not solely to secure Egyptian independence but also to establish a democratic constitution and a state governed by the rule of law.

It is for these reasons that the verdict in the "Battle of the Camel" case was a crucial test of the January Revolution, as well as of the revolutionaries and of the genuineness of their commitment to the revolution. Unfortunately, there have been recent remarks from the revolutionaries to the effect that the peacefulness of the revolution was a mistake and that if certain verdicts are not now issued then justice will not have been served.

These remarks strike at the very heart of the revolution. Above all, they represent a gross distortion of the meaning of justice, for by their logic the verdicts in such cases should be based on the opinions of the street and the shouting of crowds. This is the type of justice that may start with the condemnation of those associated with the former regime, but that will eventually drag in those associated with the new, hauling them up for summary trials before extraordinary courts, as has occurred in dozens of revolutions from the French Revolution in 1789 to the Iranian one in 1979.

This is not to suggest that justice in its absolute or abstract sense has been applied, or that criminals have necessarily received their just punishment. However, at least the justice that has been administered is based on the rule of law. This is the justice that condemned the former president and his minister of interior to life in prison in a case in which several police officers were acquitted on the grounds of insufficient evidence. In peaceful revolutions, unfortunately few and far between, the aim should be not just to establish a more moral order, but also to prevent the infliction of injustice upon even a single innocent person.

The revolution and the cause of justice will remain deficient if the prosecutions and trials of members of the old regime are allowed so to overshadow the present that the revolution is unable to look forward and to make a definitive break with the conditions that had become intolerable because of the stagnation and rigidity that had prevented any significant progress.

Put otherwise, an obsession with the old regime would strip the revolution of its intrinsic quality as a manufacturer of change and a prime shaper of the future. It would also keep the focus of justice from being trained where it should be trained, which is on the present and on today's generations. The focus should, more importantly, also be on the future generations that will reap the rewards of the seeds that the revolution has planted.

Sadly, the 25 January Revolution has not yet devoted sufficient attention to the future and to justice and the rights of today's and future generations in a modern and advanced nation. Now is the time to undertake an assessment of what has taken place in the nearly two years since the revolution.

We have elected our first civilian president, which is no mean accomplishment. But Egypt is currently in a state of confusion and disarray that must be overcome.

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