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Still interested in Hosni Mubarak’s trial by drama?

It’s dubious there would have been more than a few that would have considered the verdict non-politicised in some shape or form

H.A. Hellyer

Published: Updated:

When Mubarak was first brought to trial in 2011, the eyes of most Egyptians were focused on the proceedings. Three years later, he’s still coming to court – but the scene has changed so much in that time. The collective gasp Egyptians took when a former Egyptian president was brought in front of a judge has long since disappeared. But the trial, the latest episode of which took place this past Saturday, continues to provide lessons to those who still seek justice in the ‘New Egypt’.

The trial is not the first Mubarak has attended – in the past few years, more than one case has been filed against him. This trial in particular is another stage in a long series of trials in one case – that which claims Mubarak and others ought to be held accountable for the killing of protesters during the 25th of January revolutionary uprising in 2011. Mubarak and others had been found guilty of the charges in June 2012, but an appeal in January 2013 found the judgement unsubstantial on procedural grounds, ordering this retrial. For more than a year, the retrial’s proceedings have been on-going.

Uninterested

In advance of the court hearing, two things were clear. The first was that while the trial’s hearing on Saturday gained substantial attention in the world’s press, it gained far less among Egyptians at large. After three years of tumultuous politics, many Egyptians who would have been enthralled by the court’s proceedings are now uninterested. Politics in general, not simply Mubarak’s trial, has proven to be draining. Egyptian politics, such as it is, is limited to a powerful and popular military backed autocratic establishment on the one hand, and an increasingly irrelevant right-wing Islamist and pro-Mursi coalition on the other. Unsatisfied with both camps, a pro-revolutionary camp remains – but its main focus at present is to survive. Mubarak’s trial may have symbolic meaning – but the verdict does not energise public debate in Egypt in the same way as it might have a few years ago.

It’s dubious there would have been more than a few that would have considered the verdict non-politicized in some shape or form

H.A. Hellyer

The second obvious observation to be made about the trial is that regardless of whatever the ruling will be, there are few in Egypt who will consider it removed from the political context. Indeed, the judge himself indirectly implied as such, noting that the court was aware, ‘this is a national case, not a normal dispute’. Beyond the judge’s own recognition of the wider political circumstances, there’s also two other realities involved here. In the past year or so, the rehabilitation of the Mubarak years has become a common theme within national discourse within Egypt. The new political dispensation does not allow a complete rolling back of the clock in that regard: otherwise, Egyptians would see a formal reconstitution of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP), and the Jan. 25 uprising would not be described as a ‘revolution’ in official parlance. At the same time, a far more insidious attempt to discredit the sacrifices made by Egyptians during those 18 days has been underway for some time. In 2011, it would have been scandalous for anyone in the public arena to suggest that it had been anyone but the police forces and pro-Mubarak forces that had killed protesters in January and February 2011. Today, there are many who will find space to promote theories that Brotherhood members, Palestinians and other ‘shadowy forces’ infiltrated the protests and were guilty of strife that led to those deaths.

If the judge had, in this latest episode of the trial’s drama, convicted Mubarak, it would be perceived by his supporters that the post-Mursi authorities are keen to shore up their credentials as enthusiasts of the Jan. 25 revolution. Of course, it should go without saying that the activists that were responsible for sparking that revolution, and who continued through the post Mubarak period to fulfil its goals, would disagree.

If, on the other hand, the judge had acquitted Mubarak, the accusation would have been that the new regime is sending a message to former NDP stalwarts that while they can’t be rehabilitated entirely as NDP members, they can certainly be incorporated into the political arena in other shapes and forms.

In either eventuality, it’s dubious there would have been more than a few that would have considered the verdict non-politicised in some shape or form.

No verdict

But the verdict wasn’t provided on Saturday. Instead, the court only gave more ammunition to those who have described the trial as a drama, and its different hearings as episodes in a television series. In co-ordination with a pro-government but private television station the court screened a short film that elaborated, against the background of haunting music, how much work had gone into understanding the case, with the thousands of documents that needed to be examined. As such, the court, it was claimed, required another couple of months in order to come to a fully developed conclusion.

The postponing of the verdict, and the nature of how it was pronounced, is telling. In other court cases in recent months, verdicts have been provided with scarcely any time spent deliberating upon the cases in question at all, leading to widespread criticism of Egypt’s judiciary. Beyond that, if any media channel was involved in the judicial process at all, it was usually to reinforce the notion in the background that Egypt is involved in a ‘war on terror’ that overrides any ‘niceties’ around human rights. The American media, particularly on the right, was similarly involved in the months – even years – after the 9/11 tragedies in 2001.

Judicial reform

Often in private, and rarely in public, various Egyptian officials at different levels will admit the Egyptian judiciary requires deep-rooted reforms. Indeed, many have asked for technical advice from foreign governments, to provide expertise to do just that. The question is not if the judiciary needs to be reformed – it is how much reform needs to be done, when, and if the ruling elite has the political will to carry it out.

That demand for judicial reform was one of the key calls of the Jan. 25 revolution. Ironically, more than 3 years later, not only has it failed to materialize – but it is showing ever more pertinent in the very trial of the man who presided over the system that revolutionary uprising sought to change.

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Dr. H.A. Hellyer, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, the Royal United Services Institute, and the Harvard University Kennedy School, previously held senior posts at Gallup and Warwick University. Follow him on Twitter at @hahellyer.


Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.