The popular revolutions that saw people of all classes and backgrounds unite in a determined, non-violent and unstoppable effort to end the repressive and corrupt regimes in Egypt and Tunisia have made their demands for justice clear. In the ensuing negotiations shaping the transition of these societies and the region, these calls must not be marginalised in favour of deals with the still powerful security structures or outside interests. On the contrary, justice must remain central to the developments shaping the future of the region as we speak.
As well-documented experiences of other countries testify, denying justice-related issues a place at the negotiating table or giving a blanket amnesty to those responsible for serious human rights violations will inevitably come back to haunt the societies emerging from dictatorial rule. Our experience has documented justice mechanisms that have worked to provide long-term stability in various contexts across the globe. There is no legitimate reason why these lessons would not be drawn upon in Egypt, Tunisia and the rest of the region.
Some steps taken by the Egyptian Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in the first days of its rule following the departure of Hosni Mubarak could be promising. While the hope remains that it will hand over to a civilian interim government, the masses that brought down the former regime can derive encouragement from its decisions to dissolve the unrepresentative parliament and promises to speed up the constitutional reforms required to ensure free and fair elections.
However, its reluctance to lift the state of emergency or free political prisoners illustrates how naïve it would be to expect that the fundamental changes sought by the people of Egypt could materialise in a few months. The process of transition to a stable democracy based on the rule of law will be long and difficult. Ensuring justice for the past abuses suffered by Egyptians at the hand of Mubarak’s regime will be one of the main challenges facing the new leaders and state institutions.
Establishing the facts about these violations, holding perpetrators responsible and providing reparations to victims will be key if Egyptians are to regain faith in the rule of law and start trusting government institutions. The truth about the torture and mistreatment of the perceived enemies of the regime can probably be found in the archives of the security apparatus. This record is of fundamental importance for any future justice effort and must be protected and made accessible to relevant bodies whose mandate and authority will draw from consultations with all segments of society, primarily the victims.
As they fought for the change whose tectonic impact will be felt throughout the world in the years to come, the protesters in Tahrir Square called for Hosni Mubarak and his cohorts to be brought to justice for human rights abuses and all-pervasive corruption. It remains to be seen if and how this will come to pass. In the current circumstances, it is hard to expect the Army to be keen on heeding that call when some of the perpetrators could come from its ranks. This testifies to the need for reform of Egypt’s security apparatus as one of the primary mechanisms of transitional justice, essential if the country is to see full democracy and civilian rule.
At the same time, the Army can demonstrate its declared loyalty to the people of Egypt by acting promptly to ensure that all those responsible for attacks on the demonstrators, which left hundreds of people dead and countless injured, are swiftly brought to justice. This would be a strong positive sign that the Army is committed to the justice sought by the protesters.
Reparations to the victims who suffered at the hands of the state are another mechanism to be considered in the process of providing justice for past abuses. The crucial element in the process of defining such a reparations scheme would have to be consultations with victims and various other actors, but one idea could be to use the wealth unlawfully amassed through corruption by the officials of the former regime and their cronies.
It is evident that Egypt will face great challenges in ensuring that justice and accountability are integral elements of the forging of a stable, free and prosperous society with the rule of law as one of its pillars. Lessons learned from other societies across the globe that have undergone similar transitions in the past are invaluable. The same goes for the support of the international community, which has an obligation to help Egyptians decide on the best way to achieve justice. This obligation particularly applies to the countries with a long record of support for the former regime.
Barack Obama stated that Egyptians have inspired us and bent the arc of history towards justice once more. While the makers of the new Egypt would act wisely to take into account the wealth of previous experiences and the amassed knowledge in deciding how to pursue the justice they thirst for, it is up to all of us to support them in doing so.
David Tolbert is president of the New York-based International Center for Transitional Justice.