Mubarak on Trial

3 August 2011

Mubarak on Trial

by Gwynne Dyer

Former Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak was wheeled into court today in a hospital bed (his lawyers claim he is very ill), and put into the same kind of iron cage that so many of his opponents were tried in before they were jailed or hanged. The charges are corruption and ordering the killing of protesters during the Egyptian revolution last February.

If convicted of the latter charge, he could face the death sentence, but he is unlikely ever to dangle at the end of a rope. Some 850 Egyptian protesters were killed during the revolution, but the kill orders were probably never written down, and it will be very hard to prove Mubarak’s personal responsibility for the killings.

No matter. He is 83 years old and in poor health, so even a few years in prison would be effectively a death sentence. This trial is not about the fate of a few wicked men. (Mubarak’s sons and seven close associates are also on trial.) It’s about a new Egypt where the law must be obeyed even by the powerful.

It’s the fact that the trial is taking place that matters, not the severity of the punishment. But given that the soldiers are still in charge, most Egyptians are still stunned to see it actually happening.

It was the Egyptian military who intervened on 11 February to force Mubarak to resign from power and end the killing. Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi heads the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces that serves as an interim government pending free elections in Egypt. But the Egyptian army has never been a hotbed of democracy.

Tantawi, 75, was personally close to the deposed dictator. Mubarak is a former general himself, and the military do not like to see one of their own humiliated in public. There has also been great pressure from the surviving Arab autocracies not to have a former ruler put on trial.

Most Egyptians therefore never expected to see Mubarak on trial in open court, but the military have their own interests to defend. During 57 years of thinly disguised military rule they have built up an enormously lucrative presence in housing complexes, banking, and all sorts of other non-military activities. They also get a huge share of the country’s budget.

The country’s senior officers realise that they have to make a deal with at least some of the civilian political forces in post-Mubarak Egypt if they want to keep their privileges. Putting Mubarak on trial is a down-payment on that deal – but who are their prospective civilian partners? A lot of the young people who actually made the revolution happen suspect that it is the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Brotherhood was slow to come out in support of the revolution, for it had an unwritten deal with Mubarak that allowed it to operate as a sort of unofficial opposition (as long as it didn’t challenge his rule). It has put down deep roots in the poorer sections of Egyptian society thanks to the very effective social services it provides. Its leaders are middle-aged and elderly men of a conservative disposition.

The young men and women who actually brought Mubarak down, on the other hand, are overwhelmingly secular in their views. They want a free press and real respect for human rights. So which group would the military prefer to deal with?

If there were an election in Egypt today, the Freedom and Justice Party, the Muslim Brotherhood’s new political front, would probably win more votes than any other party. We’ll know by next month, because there is actually going to be an election in Egypt in September.

Paradoxically, it is the liberal, leftist and radical political groups that want to postpone the election, because they too believe that the Brotherhood will triumph if an election is held this year. But it would be just the same next year. Over a third of Egyptian voters are illiterate, and at least half are very poor. The Brotherhood was there to help them over the long years when the State wasn’t.

Behind crowd-pleasing gestures like Mubarak’s trial, the military may have already cut a deal with the Brotherhood: the latter will dominate the new parliament, and in return they will leave the military’s privileged position alone.

The Brotherhood in power would do some things that the military would not welcome, like breaking relations with Israel and imposing an Islamic constitution on a country with a ten percent non-Muslim minority. But if accepting such policies is the price they must pay to defend their own privileges, the military will pay it.

So is the Egyptian revolution going to be betrayed? In part it will be, at least for a while; all revolutions are. But this is a long game, and a wise player might prefer not to take power in Egypt right now. The economy is a wreck, popular expectations are extremely high, and there will be severe disillusionment when the new, democratically elected government fails to work miracles.

It might be better to aim to win the election four years from now, when today’s victors have become tomorrow’s villains. Whether that’s a good strategy or not, it’s probably the only viable option for the secular parties.


To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 6, 12 and 14. (“Tantawi…trial”; “Paradoxically…wasn’t”; and “The Brotherhood…pay it”)