Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

The Trial of Mubarak… and some Pitfalls

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The trial of former Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, which began last week, is certainly attracting a great deal of attention in Egypt. And it is a dramatic event - a symbol of the success of the Egyptian people in toppling a seemingly entrenched autocrat who had been in power for almost 35 years, and their desire to escape from the corruption and lack of freedom which characterised his rule. And yet a number of pieces have appeared arguing that the trial, the attention it is receiving, the way it is conducted, the outcome, and the reception in the streets may have potentially ominous consequences for the future of the Egyptian revolution.

Thus former Israeli Ambassador to Egypt Zvi Mazel noted:

On the first day of Hosni Mubarak's trial last week, after the whole world had seen the ousted Egyptian president brought on a stretcher and his emaciated face peering through the bars of a huge cage, representatives of all political movements in Egypt enthused about what they called a momentous historic event.

In their own ways, they hailed justice being done and the triumph of the people of Egypt over corruption and abuse...

But Mazel warned that the trial risks being a substitute for the hard look at the real sources of their problems that Egyptians needs to engage in:

There is only one problem.

The representatives of all these parties conveniently forget and try to make their country forget how Egypt descended into today's calamitous situation....

In many conversations between Westerners and Egyptian friends in Cairo, one of the main topics was why did industrialization stop at the frontiers of Islam. Why is there no developed Arab country? Why is the Arab region one of the poorest of the world? The answers given by the Egyptians were unequivocal: There were two main factors that prevented progress: first, Islam, and second, the feudal/tribal makeup of Arab societies. These two factors froze a medieval way of life and set up a screen of sand between the Arab region and Europe where progress was taking place at a rapid pace...

The big question is what "new Egypt" is going to emerge from the events of the January 25 Revolution.

Will it be a country willing to go to the roots of the problem and to tackle the main obstacles to its progress? This would be a painful process, lengthy and convoluted, fraught with controversies and perhaps difficult conflicts. A process that may seem impossible in the foreseeable future, though it is the only one that can save this great and important country.

If, on the other hand, as all the politicians said, the trial of Hosni Mubarak - the image of an old and ailing leader on a stretcher in a cage - becomes the defining event setting Egypt on a new path, then there is nothing to hope for.

Washington Institute scholar Eric Trager makes a somewhat different point - that the trial may mark the end of the ability of the liberalising young protestors to sustain their movement. He argues:

The trial of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is being hailed as a landmark moment in Arab, if not world, history. And, in a certain sense, it is. The image of the once indomitable dictator wheeled into a courtroom on a gurney, flanked by the sons who might have been his heirs, but are now his co-defendants, affirms the primary achievement of Egypt's revolt: namely, Mubarak's ouster... Now that this has been accomplished, however, most appear willing to move on -- even though the military regime that Mubarak fronted is still very much intact. Even as it marks a great achievement, in other words, the dictator's trial will likely prove a substantial, if not insurmountable, challenge for Egypt's youth protesters, who catalyzed the anti-Mubarak revolt and are still pushing for a more transformative, democratizing revolution...

He notes the failure of recent demonstrations by the protesters and adds:

The protesters, as a result, are now trapped. Their greatest mobilizing target -- Mubarak -- has been brought to justice, and their mobilizing methods -- demonstrations -- have worn thin the patience of the general population....

Barring a major military miscue, Mubarak's trial is likely to drain Egypt's would-be revolution of its remaining oxygen. The liberalizing symbolism of Mubarak on the stand is, indeed, at odds with a still-autocratic reality.

Meanwhile, former senior US official turned analyst Elliot Abrams says a decision to execute Mubarak would be a major mistake and questions the motives of those pushing for this outcome. He told interviewer Oren Kessler:

"Execution would be a gigantic mistake. But if he's convicted now, who would give him a pardon? If you come in as Egypt's next president, would you want that to be your first official act? That would make a lot of people angry.

"It was shocking to see Mubarak in a cage - he didn't look very well," Abrams said by phone from Washington. "Who would have thought something like this could happen a year ago? "Do most Egyptians really want this? Do they think this is good for the country?" he said. "There are a lot of people calling for blood, but the question is how many. Is it 75 percent of Egyptians? Two percent?" Abrams said authorities pushing for the deposed president's trial are motivated by two main objectives: to assuage public anger over the former regime's alleged corruption and violence while at the same time clear themselves of those same charges.

"A lot of people want this to go ahead because they want Mubarak punished. But I think a lot of others believe that if Mubarak is punished, they won't be.

Finally, the Associated Press' bureau chief in Cairo Hamza Hendawi offers another potential danger emanating from the trial - the lessons likely to be learned by other despotic rulers:

Facing tenacious uprisings, the leaders of Syria, Libya and Yemen must have thought of their own possible fates when they saw their one-time peer Hosni Mubarak in a defendant's cage, on trial for charges that could carry a death sentence.

For the three authoritarian Arab leaders, the choices are limited: Cling to power at any cost, negotiate immunity or find a foreign haven.

All those options make it harder to resolve their countries' turmoil peacefully.

Syria's Bashar Assad, Libya's Moammar Gadhafi and Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh are likely to step up violence, judging that they must wipe out the uprisings against them to ensure their own protection. If negotiations do occur, then they are even more certain than before to demand that any deal include immunity or safe exile. And their opponents, more determined than ever to see their leaders in the same dock as Mubarak, may be less likely to accept those conditions.

"That's the lesson Arab leaders have learned: Mubarak gave up too easily (and) without a fight," said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar.

Meanwhile, some more details have recently been published about the vastly increased Gaza smuggling that is occurring since Mubarak's fall - readers may be interested in this useful analysis of the situation from Tel Aviv University security experts Gilad Stern, Einav Yogev, and Yoram Schweitzer and this news story from al-Sharq al-Aswat.

Tzvi Fleischer

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