Will Mubarak face justice?
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The much-awaited trial of Hosni Mubarak is finally slated for Wednesday in Cairo. But the verdict on whether the former Egyptian leader will actually have his day in court is still out.
For weeks, the chatter in the Egyptian capital of Cairo was focused on what would happen when former President Hosni Mubarak’s trial date was postponed - so certain were average Egyptians that the man known as “the pharaoh” and “rais,” or “president” in Arabic, would escape justice.
But last week, the Egyptian justice minister declared the much-awaited trial would indeed take place on August 3 in Cairo, as protesters have long demanded. That announcement was followed by a flurry of official statements detailing the security arrangements for Egypt’s trial of the century.
Suddenly, the unimaginable seemed likely to happen.
For security reasons, the trial has been shifted from its original venue at a Cairo conference hall to a police academy in New Cairo on the eastern fringes of the sprawling city.
At a weekend press briefing - which was delayed due to the crush of journalists - the presiding judge announced that a maximum of 600 people would be allowed in the courtroom and that proceedings will be broadcast live on Egyptian state television.
Wednesday, August 3 happens to be the third day of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting, when Egyptian TV serials are avidly followed across the Arab world. The live trial broadcasts, many Egyptians predict, will outshine even the most popular Ramadan TV serial this season.
The stuff of courtroom dramas
In many ways, the upcoming trial has all the makings of a riveting courtroom drama. In the dock, on charges of corruption and ordering the killings of protesters will be an ousted octogenarian leader, a once seemingly invincible autocrat who ruled the world’s largest Arab nation for 30 years. If convicted, Mubarak could face the death penalty.
“We’re talking about the trial of a former president, which would be the biggest trial in this country since the Sadat assassination trial,” said Barak Barfi, research fellow with the Washington DC-based New America Foundation, referring to the trial following the 1981 assassination of former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.
“This would be the first Arab leader to be put on trial [since the Arab Spring]. The leaders of Libya, Yemen and Syria have not fallen yet. Remember the Tunisian former leader [Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali] fled to Saudi Arabia. He’s being tried in absentia, that’s not the same thing. He’s not there to defend himself.”
Mubarak isn’t the only one slated in the dock at Wednesday’s trial. The metal cage that Egyptian courts use as a docket is also expected to host Mubarak’s, two sons, Alaa and the infamous Gamal Mubarak, as well as former Interior Minister Habib al-Adli and six top police officers.
Twitter skeptical of the ‘rais’ in the dock
For most Egyptians, the prospect of the rais facing a public trial seemed too incredible to be true, a sentiment repeatedly reflected on the microblogging site, Twitter.
“I still believe that Mubarak will die before august 3rd .. Mark my words,” tweeted one Egyptian. The tweets in Arabic were more sardonic with some tweeters demanding to know “the exact time” the ailing, 83-year-old former president would die.
Ever since he fled to the Red Sea resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh following his February 11 ouster, Mubarak’s health has been the subject of conflicting reports.
With hours to go before the country’s most-awaited trial, there’s little consensus among experts over whether Mubarak would face justice Wednesday.
“Nobody thinks there’s going to be a trial,” said Barfi in a phone interview with FRANCE 24 from Cairo. “People are very skeptical that the military will put their own on trial.”
Critics note that Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the 19-member body that took power after Mubarak’s ouster, comprises of several senior Mubarak-era officials - including SCAF chief, Muhammad Hussein Tantawi, who was Mubarak’s defence minister.
On the other hand, Steve Negus, a seasoned Mideast reporter based in Cairo, noted that Egyptian media reports seemed to indicate that the ousted president would indeed be present at Wednesday’s trial.
“The reason there’s no consensus is because up until Sunday, many believed the trial would not take place, that it would be delayed, that there would be an excuse to postpone the trial, that Mubarak’s doctors would say he’s too sick to appear in court,” said Samer Shehata, from the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at the Washington DC-based Georgetown University.
“But the news reports now say it will take place at a police academy – that’s promising. It now looks like there are more specific accounts of how the trial will proceed,” said Shehata before adding a cautionary, “I’ll believe it when I see it.”
The one issue uniting many Egyptians
While there’s little doubt that Egypt’s military establishment has not been particularly enthusiastic about putting Mubarak on trial in Cairo, Shehata noted that the SCAF has very few options given the widespread calls among protesters for Mubarak to face justice.
“Although the SCAF is reluctant to fulfill the aspirations of the people, they do respond to pressure and a trial seems to be the only way to address the protesters demands,” said Shehata. “If it can get hundreds of thousands on the streets, it wakes them [the SCAF] up. Pressure seems to be the only way things get done.”
Shehata noted that while Egyptians are divided on a number of issues, including the vexing business of changing the constitution first or holding elections first, “the one thing that unites the vast majority of the people is that Mubarak should be tried. If that does not happen, it would infuriate many people,” said Shehata.
The Saudis and the Americans in the mix
The discourse surrounding the country’s trial of the century has also included speculations on how Egypt’s key international backers – the US and Saudi Arabia – view the trial and if they could affect the proceedings.
Analysts agree the Saudis do not like the idea of a former Arab leader in the dock. It’s not a bracing sight for any absolute monarch, especially if they hail from royal families accused of rampant corruption.
“There’s a joke doing the rounds that if you’re an Arab leader, you’re either in Saudi Arabia or wish to be in Saudi Arabia,” noted Shehada.
But he added that while the Saudis don’t want to see Mubarak on trial, “there are other, more threatening issues that the Saudis hope their money can buy, such as Egypt’s alignment on Arabism and its support on Iran. Shortly after Mubarak was ousted there was a possibility that Egypt would establish normal relations with Iran and this is more threatening for the Saudis.”
As the global Shiite powerhouse just across the Persian Gulf, Iran has long been a threat to Saudi Arabia’s Sunni monarchy.
As for the US, Egypt’s other big donor, some analysts – such as Joseph Massad, an Associate Professor of Modern Arab Politics at the New York-based Columbia University - believe Washington has been putting pressure on the SCAF not to try Mubarak.
But Barfi maintains that Washington views the trial “purely as an Egyptian domestic issue. We saw how fast the US cut Mubarak lose even though he had been a very loyal partner. Washington has always seen Egypt as a strategic partner, not as one person,” said Barfi.
What analysts don’t dispute is the symbolic weight of the Mubarak trial on the Arab world in general and the Arab Spring in particular. As Shehata put it: “The idea that a former head of state can be held accountable by the people is a very potent message across the region.”