It has finally been decided; the trial of the century — the prosecution of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak — began at exactly 9am on 3 August 2011. Finally, one of the most unusual and most difficult trials, and one that was unimaginable in the past. It was like a dream come true for all the Egyptian people, shrouded in scepticism until moments before it started. The president of Egypt is a leader with absolute powers, as if he were Pharaoh in modern clothes. It was difficult, if not impossible to imagine him behind bars fending off charges, but this dream has now come true in a real court. The defendant is a senior official who has an opportunity to defend himself based on the law, and the final verdict will be based on facts, evidence, witnesses and the talents of lawyers.
As the trial began, the people of Egypt lived a historic moment, with ousted president Mubarak rolled into court on a stretcher and deposited in the defendants’ cage to face charges of murder in the killing of demonstrators during the revolution.
It is a moment of new history for political life in Egypt and the Arab world, proving that the people are capable of prosecuting their rulers no matter what their strength, powers or privileges. Also, that the people are capable of punishing them through law and justice for the crimes they have committed, the corruption, tyranny, despotism and violations of rights.
When the trial began, it ended intense debate on several issues, most prominently that the trial is a sham to distract the nation. But it was broadcast live on television to prove that this is a genuine procedure and not a farce, and that justice and transparency are two faces of the same coin. Second, there were claims that the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) is conspiring to abort the revolution and evade its demands; but the trial has proven there is a sincere effort to prosecute the symbols of the former regime without any interference by SCAF in the judicial process generally, and Mubarak’s trial especially.
Third, some claimed that by not putting Mubarak on trial or holding him accountable, despite his well-known illness, he could return to power as rumoured by highly sensationalist media figures and journalists who argued that the revolution has not yet achieved its goals. The trial discredited all these claims and made them evaporate into thin air, proving that the leadership of SCAF is a partner in the revolution, running the country, eliminating the former regime and establishing a new one that is expected to be acceptable to the majority of Egyptians.
Another debate that came to an end was one about the commitment to dismantle one regime and rebuild another. What is needed now is a means for political forces, irrespective of their ideologies, to forge ahead towards genuine democracy and a regime that upholds human rights, as well as intellectual, political and social plurality.
Dramatic rise and demise
The moment when the former Egyptian president entered the defendants’ cage in court was dramatic by all standards, fused with a mixture of feelings among most of those who watched, but was also a moment of clarity for others. Some wondered whether his accomplishments were not enough to vindicate him; protecting the country from going to war several times, especially that he is one of the leaders of the glorious October War. In truth, the beginning of the trial demonstrated that heroism, and financial and moral achievements are one thing, but accountability for grave mistakes and high crimes is something entirely different. What is important is that the law is applied to everyone irrespective of any other considerations.
The trial itself has plenty of paradoxes; not only is it a legal prosecution of a president who oppressed his people, but it also tells the story of one man rising to the summit and then unceremoniously falling down. In the process, tyranny and corruption brought the perpetrator to a dismal moral and, perhaps, financial end.
The paradox of the venue is also linked to the drama of rise and demise, since the trial is taking place at the Police Academy, which was formerly called the Mubarak Academy for Security. The revolution changed the name, definition and content of the venue when it decided to remove Mubarak’s name and simply rechristen it the Police Academy. This was also the last venue he appeared at in public at the peak of his power to commemorate Police Day on 23 January 2011 —two days before the revolution began. Today, he goes there as an accused official in his first public appearance after his forced resignation from power on 10 February. It is as if the venue is witness to both the rise and demise together, although the demise is not yet certain since the trial has not concluded and a verdict has not been issued. Suffice to say then, his moral demise.
Important messages to one and all
The trial also sends important messages. First, the judiciary in Egypt in general is renowned for its integrity and honesty despite pressure by some influential powers or some media from time to time. It is reassuring enough for large sectors of the Egyptian public that the matter is now in safe hands, and that Judge Ahmed Rifaat, presiding over Mubarak’s trial, is well known for his rigor and deterrent verdicts based on the word and spirit of the law.
Second, the trial is more than a message of deterrence for any Egyptian president in the future; the prosecution of any corrupt official irrespective of his position and rank can no longer be evaded. Hence, the new Egyptian president, no matter how extensive his constitutional powers, will be mindful not only how history will judge him but to walk the straight and narrow path to avoid Mubarak’s fate.
Third, a message has gone out beyond the borders of Egypt, which has become a model for the Arab world, and perhaps even the Islamic world, that the citizenry today will not tolerate tyranny or half measures. Their goal is simply to hold accountable those who have committed mistakes or who are corrupt.
The trial, the nature of the charges and the scale of civic rights concerns it contains, opens up the floor for requests and counter-requests by the lawyers. It is also a forum for legal and procedural loopholes, as we saw during the first session in the type of requests made by lawyers. But the determination of the court to only respond to genuine requests was blatantly obvious.