The Mubarak Trial that Wasn't

June 5, 2012

The June 2 verdict in the trial of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak only confirmed what many Egyptian activists feared all along: The trial, while proving that the former leader was not above the law, was never going to be about truth and accountability.

There wasn’t much rejoicing in Cairo, even though the former president was sentenced to life in prison.  The trial itself was a desultory affair, with the judge claiming that prosecutors failed to present significant evidence tying the former president to attacks by security forces and Egyptian police that led to around 840 deaths and thousands of injuries during the 2011 uprisings.

Rather than serve the nation's deep need for truth, the trial denied full justice to the thousands of Egyptian victims and family members.
Rather than serve the nation’s deep need for truth, the trial denied full justice to the thousands of Egyptian victims and family members.  The day after the verdict was announced, all of Cairo was talking about expectations that it would be overturned on appeal.

Amnesty welcomed the trial of Mubarak and others for their role in the killing of protesters which began in January 2011. However, the trial and verdict have left the families of those killed, as well as those injured in the protests, in the dark about the full truth of what happened to their loved ones and it failed to deliver full justice.

This feeling was echoed by Egyptian activists, who felt that the lack of transparency in the trial was all along an effort to avoid accountability for the long list of human rights abuses.  Some said the verdict emphasized how little has changed since the Jan. 25 uprising.  The lesson for Magdi Abdelhadi, an Egyptian journalist, was that the “Mubarak regime can not try the Mubarak regime.”

It could have been different.  The trial should have been more open to the victims and their family members.  Instead many family members were not allowed into the courtroom and on some occasions they were subjected to police beatings and intimidation.  A trial that should have strengthened the rule of law instead was something that left observers feeling like the law had been manipulated.

Activists hoped for a trial that would present a chain of command and specific orders that led to the killings.  Real accountability would have named the political and security officials, many of whom remain in office, who participated.  It would have been a trial that smashed the decades of impunity that enabled Egyptian leaders to muzzle civil society and oppress human rights without consequences.

Now, with impunity intact and with many activists demoralized over the choices presented in the upcoming presidential election, it’s easy to presume that the spirit of 2011 is over in Egypt.  But that would be wrong.

It’s important to remember what has been changed: A president has been shown that he is not above the rule of law, and free and relatively fair elections have given the Egyptian people a chance at real political participation that had long been denied them.  There’s no going back from that.

Furthermore, the protests that followed the verdict suggest that the current regime may have misread the mood of the populace.  The expectation is that activists would cheer Mubarak being hauled off to jail and then returned home complacently.  That’s not going to happen. Activists’ work has just begun.

The verdict must be seized as an opportunity to start urgently needed institutional and legal reforms with a view to ending Egypt’s entrenched culture of impunity for human rights violations.

Until such reforms are introduced, security officers and others will continue to see they are still able to escape punishment for the violations and abuses they commit.