Hosni Mubarak sentence: The limitations of justice

By Simon Allison 4 June 2012

Hosni Mubarak may have received a life sentence, but Egyptians are less than impressed. It’s not enough, they say, and he was cleared of the really important charges. But Egypt should learn from the South African example, which teaches us that justice comes in many forms. By SIMON ALLISON.

Egyptians’ zeal for justice is a new phenomenon. Just two years ago – back in the days when revolutions were something only those crazy Iranians did and Tahrir Square was just a chaotic roundabout where pedestrians feared to tread – it was a generally accepted fact that a combination of wealth and proximity to Hosni Mubarak was the real-life equivalent of a get-out-of-jail-free-card.

Even for the proletariat, law and order was selectively enforced, and frustrated communities took the mob-justice approach all too familiar to residents of some South African townships. Western expatriate families in some areas were warned that if they accidentally ran over a child on the street, it was safer to hit and run rather than risk facing the angry crowds.

And so there is something revolutionary in and of itself in the strong reactions expressed by many Egyptians in the wake of Mubarak’s sentencing. There was the head of the hated regime in a plain tracksuit and sunglasses, behind the bars of the prisoner’s cage, stoney-faced as a judge sentenced him to life in prison. Oh, how the mighty have fallen! From presidential palace to life in prison, this, surely, is justice being done.

But even this was not enough for Egyptians and their newfound belief that their legal system should be free from politics and held to the highest legal standards. Using their also-newfound ability to express themselves, thousands descended on Tahrir Square to protest what they described as a politically motivated verdict, one which bore all the hallmarks of interference by the military government.

The devil was in the details. Mubarak was tried together with a number of other people, including his sons, Alaa and Gamal, his former interior minister Habib al-Adly, and a few of the most notorious figures from his hated security apparatus. They were charged with involvement in the murder of unarmed protestors during Egypt’s revolution in January and early February last year, as well as corruption.

From this array of the fallen regime’s top men, only Mubarak and the interior minister were found guilty of anything. The security officials walked free, and the sons were cleared. But Alaa and Gamal are not free to go: coincidentally (or not, as some suggest), they were charged with insider trading just a few days before the sentencing, meaning they’ll stay in prison until the new charges are dealt with.

And while Mubarak and Al-Adly were found guilty, they weren’t found guilty of enough, as far as those protestors are concerned. Cleared of the corruption charges, the judge determined that they had no direct involvement in the deaths of the protestors either, and were only responsible for failing to use their high office to stop the bloodshed. It is widely thought that even this watered-down offence, or the life sentence the judge attached to it, will be overturned on appeal, meaning that Mubarak shouldn’t get too comfortable in his prison cell just yet. Not that he took the news well: Egyptian state TV reported that he suffered a heart attack in the helicopter as he returned from sentencing, although this has not yet been verified.

Some see the trial and the verdict as yet another indication that the interim military government is pulling the strings behind the scenes, and that they are doing their best to protect their own. It was Mubarak, after all, who militarised the Egyptian state to an extent where the military operated almost as a country within itself, with its own laws and budget (generously sponsored by the United States to the tune of $1.3 billion per year).

Some see it as a symbol of how little the revolution has changed things – a year after Mubarak’s resignation, a judge appointed under his rule was the one passing judgment on him. This is hardly judicial best practice. Coupled with the surprising popularity of Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak’s last prime minister and a man who campaigned on a promise to return things to how they were in the good old days, the revolutionaries and activists feel like their tireless efforts were in vain, as were the deaths of the hundreds of people who were the human sacrifice required to persuade Mubarak to resign.

Most of all, people feel betrayed because justice has not been served on the people that killed these “martyrs”, as they’re known. The natural suspects were tried and cleared, and even the president apparently has just a little blood on his hands. The response of most people has been to dismiss this verdict, because where then does one go looking for justice?

In South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission taught us that justice can take many forms. Prison time is not the only payback. To those people given indemnity by the commission, and the many others that chose to keep their crimes to themselves, their punishment is to watch the new South Africa rise out of ashes, a vibrant, diverse democracy enjoying more success than the apartheid government could even dream of. It’s less viscerally satisfying than a jail term, perhaps, but no less just – and it’s a justice from which the rest of us can benefit.

The South African example is so powerful that the international communityhas tried to implement similar commissions around the world, with varying degrees of success. A TRC might not work in Egypt – every country is different and has to find its own way to deal with its issues – but the principle is sound: justice and punishment are elastic concepts, and countries can achieve both without insisting on court cases and jail time.

Better to let Mubarak fade into irrelevance, and concentrate on finishing what the revolution started: the creation of a democratic, inclusive government, one that can tackle Egypt’s many and varied problems and oversee genuine development. If I was Mubarak, this would be punishment enough. DM

Read more:

  • Hosni Mubarak’s sentence greeted with initial euphoria, then anger on the Guardian;
  • Egypt prosecutor to appeal Mubarak verdict on VOA News.

Photo: An anti-Mubarak protester holds a defaced picture of the former Egyptian president outside the police academy where Mubarak is on trial in Cairo June 2, 2012. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh


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