Chatham House: Independent thinking on international affairs

Expert Comment

Expert image

Egypt on Trial

Wednesday 17 August 2011 by Kate Nevens (former Chatham House expert)
   


The trial of Hosni Mubarak has enormous significance for Egypt and the wider Middle East. It symbolises a defeat of authoritarianism: power can no longer be assumed to go uncontested in the region.

But for those hoping for a more thorough transformation of state-society relations - for bread, dignity and social justice - there is concern that the theatrical impact of the trial could be a diversionary tactic.

Hundreds of Egyptians, both Mubarak supporters and revolutionaries, gathered outside the police academy to watch their former President be tried for crimes against his citizens. The same scene was broadcast live on TV stations across the world and the public have been witnessing, en masse, a brutal, previously untouchable dictator begin to be held accountable for his deeds. Mubarak's opening words, 'Sir, I'm present', have become a downloadable ringtone, Egypt's own crazy frog.

The impact of this spectacle on public consciousness is undeniable. But already the trial has been adjourned, to return in September without the TV cameras. 

By bringing him to court, Mubarak's former colleagues at the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) are responding to public pressure. That they are taking into account popular opinion is hugely significant: many Egyptians would never have believed the military would try one of their own, a war hero. However, the extent to which this represents a genuine desire to reform is undoubtedly under question; the trial is as much about the military maintaining their own interests and the current status quo. 

The trial may also remove pressure from the military council to overhaul regime institutions. Despite a number of Mubarak's cronies on trial alongside him, substantial parts of the old regime are still in place. Very few police (who cracked down heavily on the protestors during the revolution, killing large numbers) have been arrested or questioned. In a recent Chatham House workshop in Cairo, the need to dissolve Egypt's local councils - stalwarts of Mubarak's National Democratic Party - was raised as a particularly important issue, one that has not received much press coverage either in or outside the country. In a positive development, a law has since been passed to begin this process, and groups of activists have started outreach campaigns to encourage people to put themselves forward as candidates. 

The military council has been repressing some of the very same activists that led calls for Mubarak to go. A few days after Mubarak's first appearance in court, activist, youth leader and blogger Asmaa Mahfouz was summoned for questioning by Egypt's military prosecution for posting an anti-SCAF message on Facebook and Twitter. Dubbed 'the second most expensive tweet in Egypt', Asmaa faces charges of defaming the ruling army council and inciting violence (after being questioned for 6 hours, her bail cost 20,000 Egyptian Pounds). 

Asmaa is one of many civilians and activists (some sources say over 11,000 in past six months) who have been detained or referred to military prosecutors for alleged crimes ranging from civil disobedience to receiving foreign funds. Beyond Mubarak's trial, the SCAF are sending out powerful messages. 

Egypt's activists face a litany of challenges, not least in combating the SCAF's attempts to intimidate and discredit the opposition and stifle freedoms of expression and association. They are calling for real rather than symbolic justice through civilian courts and civilian rule of law, to an end of military trials behind doors that are resonant of the oppression and corruption that was rife under Mubarak, not just an end to Mubarak himself. 

As Egypt gears up for elections, the country and its revolutionaries have an unparalleled opportunity to re-write the rules. The new President will be the first civilian leader of Egypt since the 1952. The question remains, however, of how many strings the military will continue to pull behind the scenes.

Main Details
Page Heading: 
Egypt on Trial
Date: 
Wednesday 17 August 2011
Options
Members Only Expert Comment: 
Public
Password Lock: 
Password lock on
Moore Wilson Digital Agency London