The former Egyptian president has waited a full year to answer in court. On Saturday his judge will sent a clear message to the country with the verdict.
There he lay, the old man on his gurney. He seemed barely able to move, to follow the goings on around him. Observers accuse him of merely faking his infirmity to garner the court's - and the public's - sympathy. But the image's effect is not a show: the man on the stretcher embodied utter powerlessness and helplessness – a shocking impression of someone who, for decades like no other, was the symbol of absolute power to the Egyptian people. Now, before the judge, Hosni Mubarak answered to the citizens of the state, the citizens of a country he had ruled for 30 years.
The president behind bars: a stronger symbol of the success of the revolution is hard to imagine. For the first time ever, a former head of state in the Arab world was on trial. The Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, for example, was sentenced in absentia. Mubarak had to face his judges personally. During his tenure Egyptian politicians enjoyed impunity – now the judicial process against Mubarak shows those days are over. That, explains Mona Abaza, a sociologist at the American University in Cairo, is a liberating feeling for many Egyptians.
The prosecution accuses Mubarak of three things. The most serious accusation is the responsibility for murder and the attempted murder of hundreds of peaceful demonstrators in Cairo, Alexandria, Suez and other Egyptian cities between January 25-31, 2011 – that crucial week of the Egyptian revolution which resulted in the resignation of Mubarak on February 11. Mubarak was accused of having given the order to violently crack down on protesters. While protesters also died in the days following those listed, due to the government's use of force, the charge is limited to the events leading up to January 31.
The second charge revolves around the unlawful exertion of influence in favor of entrepreneur and real estate developer Hussein Salem. This man, according to allegations, purchased property at a price far below market value in the Egyptian spa resort Sharm el-Sheikh for the development of a resort for golf and tourism. In return he is supposed to have given the president several luxury villas. Third, the prosecution accuses Mubarak of having had his hand in Salem's profitable gas business deal in Israel.
The Egyptians, clarifies lawyer Hafez Abu Seada, chairman of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, are observing the trial closely. They were particularly incensed by the numerous fatalities in the last weeks of January, 2011. “Most Egyptians expect a harsh judgment against President Mubarak. They're of the opinion that, because of the bloodshed throughout the days of revolution, he must be judged.”
Whether it will come to that, however, Abu Seada can't say. What can be clearly identified is Mubarak's roll in gas transactions. “Only on this point is there any evidence,” says Seada. As for the other two charges, the lawyer is more restrained. Regarding what is for many Egyptians the most important charge – the ordering of violent measures in the days of revolution – the evidence is sparse. “One reason is that the two main witnesses, former Defense Minister Mohammed Hussein Tantawi and previous Intelligence Chief and Egyptian Vice President Suleiman, declared in their trial testimony that President Mubarak did not give commands to the interior minister and defense minister to use violent measures against the demonstrators.
Allegations of legal inconsistency
Egyptians are eagerly awaiting the court's evaluation of the evidence. One thing that disturbs them – completely independent of the judgment – is the fact that Mubarak has to answer before a civil court, while 12,000 demonstrators stand before military tribunals. In military tribunals, the defense has significantly fewer rights than in civil courts. As a result they can neither freely choose their lawyer, nor adequately prepare their defense. Many Egyptians are skeptical with regard to other trials in which officers have to answer for violence. Many of their countrymen, said Mona Abaza from the American University in Cairo, doubt that the trials will be carried out appropriately.
Again, the judgment against Mubarak may come to nothing. Legally, the events of the revolution and the responsibility of the varied state agencies involved have not yet been clarified. His organization, says Hafez Abu Seada, therefore sees itself as attacking on three fronts. First, they will try to defend the spirit and institutions of a civil society that sees itself under attack. Second, they will work on the development of freedom and civil rights and pursue any relevant debates in Egyptian parliament. Third, they will continue to work on torture cases from the time of the old regime.
From the perspective of many protesters, the Egyptian revolution, especially after the first round of presidential elections, has taken a sobering turn. Given the strong symbolism attached to the beginning of Mubarak's trial, it remains to be seen which message will be received at the trial's end.
Author: Kerstin Knipp /cd
Editor: Gregg Benzow