Wednesday,26 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1224, (4 - 10 December 2014)
Wednesday,26 September, 2018
Issue 1224, (4 - 10 December 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Trial and revolution

Mubarak’s trials say much about Egypt’s post revolution political trajectory, writes Amira Howeidy

Al-Ahram Weekly

It is five days since a Cairo court overturned Hosni Mubarak’s June 2012 conviction for complicity in the killing of demonstrators opposed to his rule and dropped corruption charges against the former president on a legal technicality. While few could claim the verdict came as a surprise it still managed to shock.

Although the former president wasn’t acquitted (and is serving the final days of an earlier three year jail term for embezzling public funds), Saturday’s verdict is inevitably perceived not just as a declaration of Mubarak’s innocence but as a vindication of the 29 years of rule that were brought to an ignominious end by the January 2011 popular uprising.

Mubarak was being retried on charges of conspiring in the murder of protestors, corruption over the sale of gas to Israel at below market prices, and squandering public money. The retrial was ordered after Mubarak successfully appealed his June 2012 life sentence for failing to act to stop the murder of protestors. The court that issued the sentence had dismissed the corruption charges against him because they were too old to fall within its jurisdiction.

From 3 August 2011, the first day of what the media happily dubbed the ‘Trial of the Century’, legal experts warned of the likely acquittal of Mubarak, his interior minister Habib Al-Adli and senior interior ministry aides on charges of ordering the killing of pro-democracy protestors, citing procedural errors in the -then Mubarak appointed- prosecutor general’s referral decision, and the porous nature of what evidence had been collected.

In murder and manslaughter cases the penal code stipulates that evidence must be provided to show an identified defendant killed an identified person or persons. All the defendants in the case were accused of complicity in ordering the killing or protestors but not of carrying weapons and shooting them. The officers charged with executing the orders were tried separately and subsequently acquitted.

The absence of any material element to the case — i.e. who shot the protestors — was its biggest flaw. At the time legal experts warned of the discrepancy but their voices were drowned in the hullabaloo surrounding a trial that few had imagined could ever take place.  

It was a warm summer morning on the third day of Ramadan when Mubarak, flanked by his Quran-bearing sons Alaa and Gamal, was wheeled into court on a stretcher, the first time he had been glimpsed by the public since his final speech as president on 10 February. The scene — an autocrat being brought to justice following a popular uprising — was unprecedented in the region. The symbolism was overwhelming, the spectacle emotionally charged.  

The streets were empty as people sat in front of their television screens to watch the live broadcast. But this was not to be a long-running soap opera. In the second session on 15 August the presiding judge imposed a ban on live TV coverage.  

Though accredited reporters were given permission to cover the following sessions a media blackout was effectively in place. Public interest in the trial quickly waned as post-Mubarak Egypt lurched from one crisis to the next.   

The trial, with all its shortcomings, didn’t happen without a struggle. It was only after a series of public protests, beginning in March 2011, demanding those responsible for the deaths of more than 800 protestors killed during the 18-day uprising be held to account that the public prosecutor ordered the ex-president’s detention. On 12 April Mubarak was arrested at his Red Sea villa.

Unlike his sons, Mubarak -who until a month before was the supreme commander of the armed forces- was sent to Sharm El-Sheikh Hospital not Tora Prison. The exceptional treatment being accorded Mubarak provoked massive protests throughout the months of May, June and July as growing numbers of demonstrators demanded he be referred to trial.  

Attempts to divert public anger towards Mubarak’s much feared interior minster Al-Adli, accused of killing protestors and money laundering, and steel-tycoon Ahmed Ezz, a close associate of Gamal Mubarak and leading figure in the then ruling National Democratic Party, accused of financial corruption — they were arrested mid-February — did little to appease growing public rage at Mubarak’s impunity. Neither did the subsequent arrest of others in Gamal Mubarak’s circle, remanded in custody on graft charges.

It took until 28 July, two weeks after tens of thousands of protestors took to the streets to demand the resignation of then premier Essam Sharaf, that a date — 3 August — was set for Mubarak’s trial.

“Without the pressure in [Tahrir] Square there was never going to be a trial,” says Ayman Al-Sayyad, a columnist and former aide to president Mohamed Morsi who resigned months before his ouster. “It is essential to remember that.”

Public pressure may have succeeded in forcing the unwiling authorities to prosecute Mubarak and his clique but the legal tools required to achieve a semblance of justice were lacking. A debate began over how best to try Mubarak and leading members of his regime. Some argued in favour of ad hoc revolutionary courts. Others warned against the absence of legal guarantees in such a scenario. With no consensus on the issue an already reluctant ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) dismissed the option of one-off courts.

“Mubarak’s trial was intended as a prophylactic, to undercut more far-reaching calls for change,” says Michael Hanna, a senior fellow and Egypt expert at the New-York based New Century Foundation.

It, and other trials, were attempts by SCAF to placate the then-revolutionary mood: as such, says Hanna, they were “absolutely successful”, though this is largely “the fault of those who were placated”.  

In the four years of Mubarak’s trials and retrials revolutionaries fell in, then out, of a fickle public’s favour. A debate raged over how the transitional period should be managed, and by whom. Egyptians have had to grapple with an Islamist-secularist polarisation of the political arena, a plethora of elections, three regime changes and dramatic shifts in the balance of power, mostly in favour of the state. It is a trajectory that has influenced every step in the former autocrat’s trials.

While some of the most prominent ministers under Mubarak were convicted on corruption charges the majority of cases brought against Mubarak-era officials were characterised by shoddy, often porous, evidence and, occasionally, trumped up charges. No one was found guilty of killing protestors during the uprising.

By the end of 2013 most jailed Mubarak-era figures had been either released or acquitted while the public that revolted against them just two years before remained mostly silent, which perhaps explains why the reaction to the dropping of charges against Mubarak — protestors attempting to enter the army-blocked Tahrir Square on Saturday, calls for bigger demonstrations for Friday — came as a surprise. The pro-state media’s discourse ranged between the apologetic, defensive and confused. On Saturday prominent talk show host Lamis Al-Hadidi repeatedly described the verdict as a “crisis”.

While many supporters of the January uprising say the verdict is the final nail in the revolution’s coffin Al-Sayyad points to the “powerful message” of recent protests across Egypt and the various manifestations of anger at the verdict as evidence of the opposite.

“Tahrir Square hasn’t witnessed scenes like this since [the military’s removal of Morsi on] 3 July 2013,” he says. “Just look at the tone of TV talks shows before and after the demonstrations.”

On Tuesday the public prosecutor ordered an appeal against the verdict, citing a “legal flaw” in the sentence. If the appeal is accepted Mubarak will face a third trial, this time before the Court of Cassation. 

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