Outside of Cairo's criminal courthouse yesterday, the families of the martyrs of Egypt's January 25 Revolution and their supporters waged a deafening call for political trials, which they insist is the only way to bring about justice quickly. The families were denied entry to the criminal courtroom where the former minister of interior Habib El-Adli was being tried for the the role he played in killing demonstrators during and after the revolution, which prompted the demonstrations.
Activists have always complained against the old regime's abuse of power, which went so far as arrests without trial, or trials in inappropriate courts, such as military, state security and so-called emergency trials. Originally, citizens were complacent with seeing ex-regime cronies tried in civil courts after the revolution, but months later with the release of certain figureheads of the former ruling regime from prison, Egyptians are demanding political trials - but not all agree.
From anger to trust to anger: What pushed Egyptians to seek revenge?
In the middle of downtown Cairo, right next to the iconic Tahrir Square, stands the charred remains of the former ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) headquarters.
The grey and intimidating building was one of the first symbols of the old regime to go, even before President Mubarak himself stepped down. In a frenzy of anger, crowds attacked the building, setting it on fire, while Egyptians across the nation watched with their mouths agate, as a key symbol of an oppressive regime that systematically tortured, beat and violated the rights of the people for 30 years went up in smoke.
It was a symbolic act - and more. The Egyptians who revolted wanted every remnant of the old regime gone. After President Mubarak himself stepped down on 11 February the people began calling for his trial and that of former ministers and officials associated with the old regime.
After much stalling by the Prosecutor General news of arrests started pouring in. But not just any arrests. These were not normal criminals; they were the crème de la crème of the old Egypt, the former “untouchables,” who strutted around the country for decades doing whatever they wanted.
It started with Ahmed Ezz, former NDP heavyweight, Zuheir Garana the Minister of Tourism and the hated and once feared Habib El-Adli, the minister of interior. Then, with increasing pressure from the revolutionaries who continued to gather in Tahrir Square to demand justice, the symbols of the old regime were one by one dragged to Tora Prison. On 13 April Mubarak himself was ordered into detention for 15 days, as were his two sons, Alaa and Gamal, who were whisked off to join the rest of the former regime gang in jail.
With each arrest a feeling of euphoria took over the protesters who slapped each other on the back and exchanged a thumbs up for a job well done. The climax came when Suzanne Mubarak, the once powerful first lady, was also ordered into detention for 15 days.
Then everything began to go downhill
News spread that Mrs Mubarak was released on bail after submitting documents proving that her Heliopolis villa is owned by a sovereign body, and that her bank accounts were donated in her name as Egypt's former first lady to be spent on charity projects. This was followed by more news that the Illicit Gains Authority (IGA) also set bail for the release of Fathi Sorour, after they couldn’t find evidence to prove charges of illegal profiteering. Ibrahim Kamel, a business tycoon and former close confidante of Mubarak accused of orchestrating the “Battle of the Camel,” when thugs attacked peaceful protesters in Tahrir Square on 2 February, was also let go.
Each release was met with public outcry. And now revolutionaries, who had put their trust in Egypt’s prosecution to bring about justice, feel disillusioned and frustrated. News that Mubarak may make a speech on Al-Arabiya news channel to ask for amnesty (which was later denied) also sent shockwaves across the country.
Former US President John F Kennedy words were quoted popularly during the 18-day demonstrations: “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”
“Inevitable,” has become the favourite word of many revolutionaries. If Egypt’s legal system can’t bring justice, then maybe we should, they say to one another.
“How can we try Mubarak and his officials using laws that they manipulated to make their shady deals legal?” they demand. Of course they won’t find anything on him, he was a dictator and no one would have dared to keep records of his dodgy activities, they shout.
As the voices of discontent rose, so did the calls for political trials by revolutionaries hungry for justice and increasingly worried that symbols of the old regime will get away with their crimes after all.
Now many revolutionaries are gearing up for a second revolution with invites being sent on Facebook for Egyptians to head back to Tahrir Square on 27 May for the “Second Egyptian Revolution of Anger.”
One of the main demands is for a speedy trial for Mubarak and all the symbols of his regime. The “We are all Khalid Said,” Facebook page, is also polling people on whether an exceptional law should be issued to try Mubarak and his gang. To date, 6,499 have voted “Yes,” and 617 “No.”
Political trials, many believe, are the only way to bring about justice. The advantage of these trials is that they can try Mubarak and his cronies for crimes that do not exist in Egyptian law - namely, political corruption. This includes anything from rigging the elections in his favour to trying to transfer power to his son Gamal, inciting sectarian tension between citizens, interfering in syndicates and twisting Egypt’s policies to benefit Israel.
“These are called political crimes and are not punished in Egyptian law,” explains Judge Mahmoud El-Khodeiry. “That’s why people want political courts.”
Khodeiry adds that Mubarak is now facing two main charges: the first is financial corruption, where he allegedly embezzled funds and used his power to his financial benefit, while the second concerns giving orders to kill peaceful protesters during the January 25 Revolution.
Both of these charges can be pursued through criminal court. The first can get him a life sentence while the second, if proven, could earn him an execution sentence. For political crimes, Khodeiry says, Mubarak would have to face a political court.
“And I suspect that he will be put to trial in both,” says Khodeiry.
The problem is that, technically, there is no such thing as a political court or political crime in Egypt. Therefore, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces or the Council of Ministers would need to issue an order to establish special “revolution” courts to conduct the trials.
There is also another creative legal manoeuvre can be used. According to Hossam Eissa, professor of law and president of the Egyptian Group to Recuperate the People's Wealth Abroad, Egypt could use the “Betrayal Law,” which was issued by late President Gamal Abdel Nasser following the 1952 Revolution to try all the symbols of the regime from 1939 until 1952.
The law called for the creation of “betrayal courts” to try the symbols of the then old regime for everything from destroying Egypt’s political life to abusing power to gain political benefits, to interfering in the work of the judiciary. This law, says Eissa, will also serve another purpose; it will give officials the right to try Mubarak and his gang for crimes committed in the past.
“If someone stole, and theft was not considered a crime when he did it, then you can’t punish him for it later,” explains Eisssa. “It’s the same here; the old regime manipulated the law so many of their indiscretions were actually legal, and that’s why we need a special law to try them for crimes in the past.”
Judge Ahmed Mekky, however, slams the idea of political trials, insisting that they are not objective. “The term ‘political trials' is actually offensive because politics is about personal gain and power whereas normal trials are about applying the law and reaching justice,” Mekky says.
He added that unlike criminal trials, judges in political trials do not care if there is enough evidence or not. “They are usually pretend trials to get rid of a political enemy,” explains Mekky. “The result is usually known beforehand and it is usually what the new political power wants.”
Plus, adds Mekky, political trials are not recognised by the international community, which means that Egypt would not be able to regain the money Mubarak has allegedly stashed away overseas — to the tune of billions that Egyptians believe is rightfully theirs and are trying to recuperate.
“Only through a criminal trial can we get back all the money he stole,” insisted Mekky.
Ayman El-Shafie, head of Cairo’s Appeals Court, also slams political trials as “laughable.”
“They are neither legal nor constitutional,” El-Shafie says. He adds that they are not even necessary. Even though Egypt does not have a law for political corruption, there are many laws in the penal code that can be manipulated to try Mubarak for political crimes. If Egyptians want to try Mubarak for rigging the elections they can use articles pertaining to fraud in the penal code, says El-Shafie. If they want to try him for his policy towards Israel, they can use articles pertaining to heresy.
Then, says El-Shafie, there is a law regarding “threats to the safety of the nation,” which can also come in handy when trying Mubarak. “Mubarak used to resort to this law to torture and detain his enemies,” explains El-Shafie. “Perhaps, then, it is the best law to try him with.”
If the penal code is not enough Egyptians can always resort to the emergency law, says El-Shafie. The law, put in effect by Mubarak in 1981, can be used to try detainees for almost anything, he said. "Why then does Egypt want to create a new law to try Mubarak when we could use emergency law?" asks El Shafie.
“I think the Egyptians want to imitate the French Revolution,” he says. “It’s the 'off with their heads' mentality.”
But, he adds, that even though emergency law could be used, do the Egyptians really want to use the very same law that Mubarak terrorised them with for three decades? “It’s ironic isn’t it? They protested against it and now that the table is turned they want it back.”
Gamal Eid, general manager of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), agrees. The network released a statement last week slamming the decision to release Mrs Mubarak and also the decision to allow Mubarak to give a speech to El-Arabiya while detained, a right not given to other detainees. But, they insisted, he also deserved a fair trial like all other detainees.
“I’m against the setting up of any special courts to try Mubarak,” says Eid. “The law is the law and we don’t need military or political trials to get justice.” The law, he added, has more than enough articles to punish Mubarak and bring about justice.
However, Eid adds, there are two rules that need to be followed if Egypt wants to play the game properly. “First, we need a prosecution that is fair, and second, we need the political will to bring about justice. Without those two, the law is useless.”
The problem, Eid says, is that the prosecution is not doing it’s job. Recent events, he adds, show that they still use the law to torment the poor, while the country’s rich and powerful can still comfortably bend the law. The State Security officers who kidnapped Egyptian activist Wael Ghonim during the revolution have not been questioned, even though the crime of kidnapping can get them seven years in prison, says Eid.
Similarly, the owners of the telecommunications companies that cut off communications services during the revolution have not been interrogated, even though many died as a result because they could not get help in time. Egypt’s chief coroner, Ahmed El-Sabaay, who is widely believed to have fabricated the report on the death of Egyptian activist Khaled Said, has also not been brought to justice, says Eid.
“All this shows that the prosecution in Egypt is not doing it’s job and that’s why people are demanding political trials,” he says.
But, says Eid, political trials are not the answer. He said that it is important that the Egyptians persevere and that justice will come if the law is respected.
“This revolution was about justice, but political trials are about vengeance and the need to get revenge,” says Eid. “I believe in fair trials, even if for a dictator.”