Egyptians were glued to their television screens today as Hosni Mubarak, who ruled the country with an iron hand for nearly 30 years, was transported on a gurney to a iron cage in a courtroom for trial on murder and corruption charges.
The sight of an Egyptian strongman in the defendant’s dock was certainly unprecedented — “the world's first trial of a former leader in a civil court in his own country,” claimed the Al Ahram news Web site, breathlessly and inaccurately.
But is the trial of Mubarak fair? About that, there is good reason for doubt.
On their face, several of the charges brought against the 83-year-old Mubarak, who is being tried with his two sons, his former interior minister and a businessman, appear plausible. He is accused of ordering the use of deadly force against protesters during the uprising against his regime last January and February; accepting luxury villas in the resort of Sharm el Sheikh from the businessman in exchange for favors; and corruptly awarding a contract for gas exports to Israel.
However, the staging of the trial reeks of haste and political calculation. The prosecution was ordered by Egypt’s temporary military rulers, who until February reported to Mubarak; they are seeking to satisfy the demands of both secular and Muslim political movements that have made the trial of Mubarak a rallying call in continuing street demonstrations.
Trials of former rulers usually take months, if not years, to prepare: Witness the endless proceedings of international tribunals on the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Sierra Leone. But Mubarak was brought to court less than six months after he was forced from office, and only two months after he was charged. Even the most diligent prosecutors would have been hard-pressed to put together a solid case against him.
And Egypt’s prosecutors lack credibility. They were appointed, after all, by Mubarak himself, and form part of a judicial system notorious for its politicization. The judge in the case, Ahmet Refaat, is known for having ruled against the regime during Mubarak’s time in office. But the court system itself remains unreformed and unanswerable to any democratic authority.
The opening session of the case today was not reassuring for those hoping Mubarak’s case would not become a travesty, like the trial and execution of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Eighty lawyers for “martyrs” killed in the revolution jostled for places in the courtroom; journalists and human rights observers were almost entirely excluded. In the streets outside, pro- and anti-Mubarak demonstrators clashed.
Mubarak’s lawyers meanwhile made clear that they intend to make the trial unmanageable. They spoke of taking testimony from 1,761 witnesses registered in the case, and of calling Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, the head of the ruling military Supreme Council, to testify about his role in the repression.
Most Egyptian opposition leaders appeared happy to ignore the potential for courtroom chaos or a patently unfair trial. Ayman Nour, an opposition leader who ran for president against Mubarak in 2005 and then was imprisoned for three years after an unfair trial, was among those hailing the proceedings. “This is not just Mubarak’s trial; it is the trial of an era,” he told Al Ahram. He, of all Egyptians, should know better.
But I was heartened to see one stalwart Egyptian human rights activist, Heba Morayef, standing against the mob mentality. Morayef, who works for New York-based Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera that the case against Mubarak had moved disturbingly fast, adding that it was crucial that the trial be seen as fair and transparent and the case against him be “watertight.”
“This was a very short investigation against a former head of state by international standards,” al Jazeera quoted Morayef as saying. “From a human rights perspective I want this trial to be a precedent, to set the stage for a new Egypt.”
That would be the right kind of trial for Mubarak. But judging from today’s start, that is not the trial Egypt will see.