It’s finally happened. Ousted Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak has been detained under orders of the prosecutor general for 15 days pending an investigation into alleged corruption and state-sponsored violence during the recent uprising. Mubarak’s sons, Alaa and Gamal, have been detained on suspicion of corruption as well.
The move marks a significant bow by the increasingly unpopular military government to public pressure after tens of thousands returned to Tahrir Square in Cairo Friday to demand Mubarak’s prosecution. That demand has not yet been met, but it’s hard to envisage the authorities turning back now lest they unleash even greater wrath among the masses.
In fact, the military leadership, who to this point has shown considerable deference to Mubarak, appears keen on dispelling any suggestion of favoritism toward its former patron. Despite checking himself into a hospital Tuesday, reportedly due to an irregular heartbeat, Mubarak was questioned anyway and reportedly suffered a minor heart attack during the interrogation. His condition has so far prevented his transfer to a prison. His sons, however, were transferred this morning from Sharm el-Sheikh to Cairo’s Tora Prison, known for holding some of the country’s most infamous political prisoners.
With prosecution looming for Egypt’s fallen strongman, here are a few important questions to bear in mind:
1. Can the military succeed in throwing Mubarak under the bus without further damaging its own reputation?
Mubarak’s arrest, after all, is a manifestly political move, forced upon the military by popular pressure. Despite its initial reluctance to pursue Mubarak, the embattled leadership seems keen to scapegoat him and present itself as a guarantor of justice and foe of corruption. It won’t be easy, though. The military was deeply entrenched in the Mubarak network of corruption and patronage. Anything that reflects poorly on Mubarak is likely to reflect poorly on the military as well.
2. What effect would a prosecution have on the larger democratic transition?
For some, a Mubarak prosecution represents an important step in Egypt’s transition to a democratic society–declaring loud and clear that no one is above the law. For others, it’s an unnecessary distraction from the more important tasks at hand like building new democratic institutions and countering the military’s less-than-democratic agenda. Only time will tell on this one.
3. How does the US fit into all of this?
So far, the State Department has been mum on the issue. But the US has a lot to lose in the event of a Mubarak trial. Among the embarrassing details of the US’s longstanding alliance with Mubarak are cooperation between the CIA and Mubarak on the rendition of terror suspects to Egypt and US weapon sale to Egyptian security forces. Tear gas canisters fired during the uprising famously bore the label, “Made in USA.” With the American government desperate to win Egyptian hearts and minds, a public airing of these details could prove deeply problematic.