No Cameras for Mubarak Trial

It’s been awhile since I last took to this space–except to cross-post MoJo stuff–so let me first say that it’s good to be back. I want to turn to a topic that I’ve spent much of this year discussing: the legal travails of Hosni Mubarak.

Since I last weighed in on the subject, we’ve seen the spectacle of the former Egyptian dictator actually placed on trial–steel cage and all. That this has unfolded at all is in itself something extraordinary after all the uncertainty that’s shrouded everything from Mubarak’s health to the military council’s willingness to follow through on its pledge to try its former boss.

But the mere act of bringing Mubarak to trial is not enough. The world–and the Middle East in particular–is scrutinizing Egypt’s every move. That’s why the presiding judge’s decision on Monday during the second day of the trial to bar television cameras from the court room is so distressing. The reason given was that it was too distracting for the lawyers, who apparently were trying out their best Johnny Cochran impressions for the cameras. Who knows what the real reason was? Maybe that was it.

But not only does the absence of TV coverage rob us of a historic spectacle and the Egyptian people of some much-needed catharsis, but more importantly, it undercuts the credibility of the proceedings immeasurably. A fully open, transparent process could have gone a long way toward restoring confidence in the rule of law and setting a precedent for fair, open trials in a country where people continue to be prosecuted in secret military tribunals. Instead, the judge has castrated the proceedings before they’ve even really begun.

The Mubaraks seem pleased with the ruling (apparently, Hosni’s son Gamal made some celebratory gestures after it was announced), but the credibility of Egypt’s legal system–and hopes that this trial could move Egypt beyond recriminations and old feuds–are the undoubted losers.  If Mubarak is acquitted–or found less guilty than the masses expect–all hell is sure to break loose. Regardless of the merits of the court’s decision, the trial will be viewed by the angry crowds in Tahrir as a sham, the fruits of a conspiracy by the military elites to save the skin of one of their own. If Mubarak is convicted, not only will Egyptians be deprived of the cathartic experience of seeing the once-great dictator humbled (as they did on the trial’s first day when was Mubarak was wheeled into the defendant’s cage–even if it all did seem somewhat less than enlightened) but above all, they will lose out on seeing justice in action, brought to its rightful conclusion.

The judiciary, which over the Mubarak years conducted itself with a surprising amount of independence, had a unique opportunity here, with practically the entire country glued to the television set, to educate the public in the rule of law and set a benchmark going forward. By denying the transparency that Egyptian people had demanded and come to expect, it’s rendered its own work meaningless. The final verdict will be spun by Mubarak’s supporters and his detractors to conform to their ready-made narratives, and confidence in the rule of law will, if anything, suffer.

That’s a steep price to pay for preventing a bunch of lawyers from donning their theatrics for the cameras.

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