from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Justice in Cairo?

August 5, 2011

Blog Post
Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

The trial of Hosni Mubarak began this week. Throughout the world the indelible image of the former president in a cage was printed on page one of a thousand newspapers.

Mubarak was a dictator, and very many Egyptians rejoiced in bringing him to justice. For them, this astonishing turn of events meant that Egypt could change, justice could be done, the mighty could be brought low, the revolution could triumph. For them, seeing him and his two sons in that cage was cathartic.

Mubarak committed many crimes. There is good evidence that his family acquired enormous wealth corruptly. During his years in power he was the law in Egypt, and he ruled unjustly. Those who challenged his violations of human rights, as did Saad Eddin Ibrahim, or had the temerity to run against him in an election, as did Ayman Nour, ended up in prison. Those prisons routinely tortured inmates. Egypt’s elections were usually stolen. Equally damaging to political evolution in Egypt in the long run, during Mubarak’s thirty years in power he crushed the center and allowed the Muslim Brotherhood to thrive, while fostering a virulent anti-Semitism.

As an official of the George W. Bush administration, I was delighted when the United States distanced itself from Mubarak--as in Condoleezza Rice’s 2005 speech to the American University in Cairo. I wish we had done it more frequently and I pushed in that direction. So it would be logical that the scene in Cairo courtroom would satisfy me, too.

But it did not. What satisfaction can be taken from watching a sick 83-year-old man being rolled into a courtroom cage in a hospital bed? It is true that the condition of Mubarak’s health and the nature of his treatment by the current government are both unclear; for example, his hair appeared to be dyed the same jet black as it had been during his years in power, suggesting that he is healthy enough to be concerned about his "youthful" appearance and able to command a staff to do the dying. But most available information points to his being in poor health, and naturally enough to being deeply depressed.

What satisfaction can be taken from this particular judicial proceeding, whose faithfulness to law and justice is so much in doubt? Who will judge Mubarak? Former sycophants whom he placed in the judiciary and who were happy enough to take honors from him for years and then turn on him when that was the new way to honors and power? Military officers who owe their rank to years of favor from him? The Cairo street, divided between those seeking democracy, those seeking an Islamic state, and those seeking any share of power? Mubarak has truly become a scapegoat, in the Biblical sense: the sins of the nation are being displaced onto him.

And then there is the sight of Gamal, his younger son. Mubarak’s effort to make Gamal his successor as president of Egypt helped bring down his regime. It was one thing for Egyptians to contemplate Mubarak staying on as president for a few more years, until death or incapacity forced him from office, but quite another for them to be asked to contemplate thirty more years of Mubaraks. My own sense, when in the White House and dealing with Gamal and with Mubarak himself, was that the old man was none too enthusiastic about forcing the nation to accept Gamal and forcing Gamal to accept the nation. He seemed instinctively to sense that it would not work--in either direction. The entire project was often attributed to Suzanne, President Mubarak’s wife, who sought either to create a dynasty or at least to assure that she would have a son placed where he could protect her and the family’s wealth after Mubarak was gone (she is thirteen years younger than her husband).

But in the end Mubarak did go along with this project, and he made Gamal the deputy secretary general of the ruling party when the meaning of that move in terms of the dynastic objectives was clear. And Gamal went along as well, when he could easily have withdrawn into a more private life. In my own meetings with Gamal I found him a pleasant and intelligent man who was completely ill-suited to rule Egypt. But if he had doubts, he certainly never displayed them publicly.

And so today he sits in that cage with his father. Yet in this awful chapter of his life he is showing a strength of character that few suspected. Throughout the court hearing he directed his attention to his father, apparently comforting him, talking with him, and helping him. Gamal was dressed in prisoner’s garb and the entire scene--the cage, the court, the crowd--would have horrified anyone in his situation. But his reaction to it was filial. It was he who rolled his father’s bed into the courtroom cage. It seemed at times he was trying to hide his father’s face from the cameras. It was he with whom his father spoke, and it was he who produced on his father’s lips the only smile that appeared from the old man. In fact Gamal did not seem to pay much attention to the trial, but to give all of his to his father.

This scene requires a Shakespeare to do it justice, considering how far and how fast the family has fallen. And there is that word again: justice. What would be justice for Hosni Mubarak? He was in no way as vicious a dictator as Saddam Hussein or Bashar and Hafez al-Assad but was a dictator nevertheless. And what would be justice for the sons who if they did not share their father’s power certainly took advantage of it?

And who, in any event, in Egypt today is really suited to mete out justice fairly?

Those questions are beyond my ability to answer. But watching the scenes in the Cairo courtroom, I could not rejoice at seeing Mubarak brought low and "justice" starting to be done. I was watching a son try to help his father, and I admired him for it and felt pity for the old man. Mubarak will have to be convicted and sentenced; the scapegoat played a useful role for the ancient Hebrews and will for Egyptians today. But if Egypt is to become a more humane and democratic land, if vengeance is not to replace justice, Egyptians must see the pathos as well as the cause for celebration when he is wheeled into his trial.