Friday, August 5, 2011
The Mubarak Trial, Or Justice Over Power
By Rami G. Khouri
The trial of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and his two sons that started in Cairo on Wednesday is both stirring and historic. It captures a rare moment of renaissance in Egypt and the Arab world, the rebirth of a people and their political culture that had died long ago and to a large extent detoured away from the march of human history.
The most telling and operative aspect of the court proceedings were the words “justice is the basis of governance,” inscribed in Arabic on the front of the judge’s dais. Here was the symbol, and also the substance, of a moribund land coming back to life, where the mass ignominy and shame of citizens are slowly being replaced with national pride, self-confidence and hope.
It is hard to exaggerate the symbolism of what happened in that Cairo courtroom. Nothing like this sort of cleansing and rebirth has ever been experienced in the Arab world during the past century, since the modern Arab state system was born. This is why for six months now, the entire Middle East has followed day-to-day events in Egypt with a combination of awe and anticipation. Arabs everywhere have been deeply impressed by the dramatic and continuing transformation of Egyptian political culture, and fully aware that what happens in Egypt is likely to influence the future of their countries.
The good news and the steps forward continue to flow, week after week, alongside the difficulties and frustrations of a slow Egyptian political transformation and economic revitalization. It was clear from the start that the revolution launched in January of this year would need months and years to run its course, as an exhausted, corrupt old system of authoritarian rule was replaced by a new and democratic governance structure that has to be built from the ground up.
The Mubarak trial is a special moment for many reasons, but one stands out above all the rest: It reassures Egyptians and Arabs that an essential building block of a democratic and equitable new Egyptian system is already in place – a fair and independent justice system. The sight of Mubarak and his sons Gamal and Alaa, former Interior Minister Habib Adly, along with other accused former officials, in a public trial where they have a chance to argue and prove their innocence is one of the most important signs to date of the heady promise of this Egyptian revolution. It affirms in a way that has been missing from Egypt for the last 60 years – 60 years! – of military-dominated governments that nobody is above the law, and that everybody has access to the protection of the due process of law.
I am impressed and buoyed by these developments because I believe that the three essential elements of credible democracy – or movement toward democracy, in the Egyptian case – are now in place: a respectable and independent judicial system, a free press and other means for citizens to express themselves, and mechanisms by which the authority of civilians can challenge or temper the rule of military men (including parliaments and constitutional protections).
That is why the start of this Mubarak trial is so significant. It is partly about dealing with the crimes and traumas of the past; but it is much more about asserting the promise and hopes of the future of the Egyptian people. They went to bed on Wednesday night confident that public officials who engage in criminal activity in the future are likely to be held accountable for ill deeds – before a fair court.
Most importantly, perhaps, the trial is important and historic because it provides a unique example of how the bad can be transformed into the good in this messy, often derelict, Arab world that we have inherited from the last four generations of selfish rulers. The Mubarak trial – however it turns out – sends the simple but powerful message that we should never lose hope in the fundamental sense of justice and fairness permeating so many aspects of Arab life and culture, but that has often been lost in the lust for power and money that dominates so many dimensions of Arab public authority and governance.
“Justice” is not a newly discovered realm for Arab citizens. It has long been a rallying cry for opposition movements across the Arab world during the past several generations, whether Islamists, nationalists, tribalists, progressives or others. Justice largely disappeared from public and private life, however, when military and security men and their executive branch underlings gutted, bought, or terrorized independent judiciaries, and stacked parliaments with their ilk.
On Wednesday in Cairo, however, justice resurfaced with drama. We should bear in mind, though, that the return of the tribunal, and the rule of law, to Egyptian life, rather than the demise of the accused, was the really important story, and lesson that will endure.
This commentary was published in The Daily Star on 05/08/2011