Ever since the opening salvo of the “trial of the century” of Hosni Mubarak, replete with the dramatic spectacle of the deathly frail-looking Mubarak being wheeled into the courtroom and locked up in the defendants’ cage, the trial has come to occupy a place in the Egyptian public discourse comfortably behind such matters as nose jobs for Salafi lawmakers and rumored legislation legalizing necrophilia. The decision to close the courtroom to cameras surely had something to do with it, as did the accumulation of more immediately pressing matters–massacres of protesters in downtown Cairo, a massacre of football fans in Port Said, economic anxieties galore, Egypt’s first free parliamentary and then presidential elections. The trial had been on hiatus since February, when the judge set June 2 as the date for the verdict.
The leap to other concerns was understandable but has proved deeply problematic. As the crises of the transition have mounted, the momentum of the revolution has been lost, not just due to the disunity and dysfunction of the revolutionaries, but as a result of a widespread loss of perspective about the revolution and its aftermath. Mubarak’s trial was in some ways an antidote to that creeping amnesia–a critical reminder of the shared grievances that led the vast majority of Egyptians to lend at least tacit support to the revolution. Amid the growing chorus calling for stability at almost any price and the strong showing of Mubarak’s last prime minister Ahmed Shafik in the first round of the presidential vote, it’s easy to forget that the start of the trial was met with tremendous excitement by the Egyptian public, and that Mubarak remains a generally reviled figure in Egypt.
There have been other reminders, no doubt. The military’s brutal crackdown on dissent, to name just one example, has inspired countless marches and protests and sit-ins. But those reactions to the continuing autocracy of Egypt’s military rulers inevitably produced frictions. Protest-weary Egyptians began to view the revolutionaries as a greater problem than the abuses they were protesting. Sharp fissures emerged among the revolutionaries themselves about tactics, philosophy, and leadership.
Continual re-expressions of rage against a deposed tyrant are not necessarily the most productive building blocks for societies torn down by decades of violent kleptocracy. Many have suggested that a Truth and Reconciliation Commission along the lines of South Africa’s in the late 1990s would be the best way to go in exposing the systemic violations of the old regime. But even narrowly-focused trials can do some good, if managed properly. They can provide catharsis to victims of the old regime’s crimes. They offer a common enemy against whom to direct lingering frustrations. Most importantly, they remind people what they hated about the former status quo, and why they should do all they can to avoid a relapse.
Mubarak’s trial did none of that. Its flaws, namely its failure to actually document concrete crimes (largely due to a lack of cooperation by Egyptian security agencies) and overly narrow focus (on Mubarak and a select few accomplices, and on human rights violations from the revolution alone) have been widely-noted. In spite of those deficiencies, it could have at least stood as an ongoing caution against the pitfalls of the former system–of security services operating with impunity, of politicians with autocratic pretensions.
Instead, Egypt finds itself a year-and-a-half after the revolution with a security apparatus essentially unchanged from the one that menaced under Mubarak. The two winners of the first round of the presidential election, set to contest the runoff in two weeks, espouse disconcertingly autocratic views just as frequently as they profess their commitment to democracy.
Now that the verdict is in, the rage that fueled the revolution is at last back out in the open. Although Mubarak received a life sentence, the ruling has not gone down well. Many wanted to see the death penalty and worry that the conviction, in which the judge repeatedly alluded to the prosecution’s lack of conclusive evidence implicating the former president, is ripe to be overturned at any time. Standing trial alongside Mubarak, the regime’s chief henchmen in the Interior Ministry were also acquitted on all counts related to the deaths of protesters during the revolution, while Mubarak’s sons Alaa and Gamal got off on corruption charges.
The response of the array of political and activist forces–from Ultras to Islamists–who took to the streets yesterday in the thousands in Cairo and other major cities appears to mark the largest mobilization of broad-based opposition politics since last fall. If anyone had begun to question just how hated Hosni Mubarak is, the answer is in the streets now. Where this all leads is anyone’s guess–some are calling it a chance to “correct the mistake” they say revolutionaries made after Mubarak resigned last February–but it suggests there’s hope yet that the trial will live up to its minimum promise: hardening popular attitudes against the most cynical machinations of the Mubarak-era police state. As memories of the regime’s crimes come flooding back into the public discourse, the original grievances of the revolution could finally return to animate Egyptian politics again.