Mubarak gets life in prison, Egypt gets nothing

Hosni Mubarak was sentenced to life in prison today.  I wish I could say it feels like justice but almost everything about the decision — and the legal process that led up to it — is unsatisfying.  As the New York Times reported in advance of the verdict, even the defenders of human rights in Egypt are unimpressed by this trial:

“It is a tough case, because the evidence is not that strong,” said Magda Boutros, who followed the case for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. “It depends what motivates the conviction — legal or political reasons.”

Although it is widely acknowledged that Mr. Mubarak’s government was riddled with corruption, Mr. Mubarak and his sons, Gamal and Alaa, were also charged, with only one count of enriching themselves at the public expense during their father’s tenure — by accepting the discounted sale of luxurious vacation homes near the Red Sea from Mr. Mubarak’s friend and ally Hussein Salem, who is awaiting extradition from Spain.

In return, prosecutors say, Mr. Mubarak approved a no-bid contract that allowed a company controlled by Mr. Salem to buy Egyptian natural gas at below-market prices for resale to Israel, and the discounted sale of public land near the Red Sea to Mr. Salem’s development company.

“It was very rudimentary,” said Heba Morayef, a researcher for Human Rights Watch. “O.K., what can we find? Four villas in Sharm el Sheikh! Let’s use that.”

The Mubarak regime itself was a criminal enterprise, using violence and intimidation to exercise power and extract a cut of the national economy, but the only crime for which Mubarak was being tried was the killing of protesters during the revolution.  Maybe he directly ordered those killings or maybe they were perpetrated with what was assumed to be his tacit approval; either way, this is a weak case to bring against a leader who ruled for thirty years.  The guilty verdict today was one degree more feeble, even, than that: it was for failing to stop the killing — a lower and more passive charge — presumably because there was insufficient direct evidence presented at the trial for the more active charge, which is one of many reasons why the outcome seems conspicuously political rather than legal, setting up an appeal.  Mubarak’s sons Gamal and Alaa, who gorged themselves for years by burrowing their tick-like proboscis into the Egyptian aorta, were acquitted: this, too, feels political, as a sop to the felool elements that turned out in sufficient numbers in the first round of voting to get their man (and Mubarak’s last prime minister) Ahmed Shafiq into the second round.  The former Interior Minister Habib el-Adly — who, incidentally, was appointed while I was living in Cairo and whose bedroom I could look into from my apartment, which was unfortunate — was found guilty on the same charges as Mubarak, even though his job every day for a decade and a half had been to employ violence to break the will of the citizenry.  The security officials at the Ministry of Interior and Mubarak aides, who were also on trial and might be expected to have been more directly implicated in the killings, were inexplicably acquitted.

I am not vengeful by nature so it brings me no satisfaction to think that Mubarak might be punished; indeed, in a post last year I looked at the lessons of the Spanish Civil War to question whether he should be prosecuted at all.  But I believe strongly in airing the truth and this trial failed utterly to expose how, exactly, the regime used violence — not just during the 18 days of revolution but during the three decades before it that made the revolution necessary.  In Arabic, the regime is called the nizam, which means system, and what we need to know is how the system worked: many Egyptians know their own personal abuses suffered under the regime but we all know too little about how those personal tragedies fit together in the larger picture.  Thus far, shamefully, we have learned more from materials stolen during the protesters raid on the state security headquarters in Madinat Nasr or Hossam el-Hamalawy’s Piggipedia project to photograph police officers than we have from any official inquiry or legal process.  To correct that, we need something like a Truth and Reconciliation Committee on the post-apartheid South Africa model.  But who in power in Egypt today wants that much Truth to come out?


As a side note, I corrected the spelling of Sharm el-Sheikh in that New York Times quote above because for reasons unknown to me they insist on spelling it Sheik.  This drives me crazy.


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