By Nath Aldalala’a
The Trial of the ‘Pharaoh on the Nile’ captured the imagination of the street in Egypt and beyond. For the second time the ousted leader Hosni Mubarak appeared in court on Monday 15th August and this seemed for many to symbolise the successful conclusion to the popular protests that lasted over the last six months. However, the point I would raise is that the trial does not serve the cause of justice and furthermore, it will have a negative impact on the immediate political future of Egypt. The slogans of “down-down with regime” voiced during early stages of the protests remained collective and adamant only until the overthrow of Mubarak. The fall of the regime meant that the core demand of the protestors has been met. This should have been followed with a second phase focusing on political, economic and social issues and thus begin the process of restoring dignity to the Egyptian citizen and that of Egypt itself.
Besides interrupting, and possibly impeding, the restoration of stability and consequent progress at both a domestic and international levels, the trial will have an immediate effect on the voting in the looming elections in the country. There are several considerations I would like to air in support of my contention. Factor one: the image of Mubarak’s appearance before the court as an ailing man. Factor two: the fact that the Military remain in power. Factor three: the Muslim Brotherhood policy of “wait and see” is likely to benefit from a rift amongst the ranks of the protestors.
To expand on the first of these factors, is to examine Mubarak’s appearances in court and their effect. On both occasions when he appeared before the court, wheeled in on his hospital bed, he looked frail and humiliated. This helped to elevate the degree of sympathy towards him. His image as a dictator, a corrupt and tyrannical leader, begins to lose currency, as a wave of sympathy on the street started perceiving him as merely “the poor old ill man”. As time passes his image will, to some extent, transforms into that of a victimised old man of 83 years. This in itself is not detrimental until it brings discord amongst the people. Indeed, his second appearance in the courtroom triggered clashes between his supporters and those who were advocates of his trial. A number of his supporters chanted: “Mubarak is not Saddam” and “He is Egyptian until death”. Again, this alone will not be tantamount to a major rift, and it will not unduly affect the outcome of the trial, but it will impinge upon the universality of the spirit of the protests that initially prevailed. It will also have an impact on the long term Zeitgeist in the Egyptian political landscape. The success of the pending elections in Egypt is not dependent simply on the number of voters, but also on a politically acute and enlightened mentality in order to lay the foundations for a new system. It is only through an informed electorate that the best results for the country can be achieved. Yet such a position may be undermined by the rift emerging around Mubarak’s trial and the flourishing of latent, ambivalent prejudices. It would be naïve to assume, despite the sheer size of protests in the country, that Mubarak lacks supporters. The few voices reverberating the ousted leader is “Egyptian until death and that he is not Saddam” may gather momentum, especially when people start to associate the dignity of Mubarak with that of Egypt.
The haste in which Mubarak has been brought to court is certainly on social grounds rather than in the service of justice. If so, the concept of justice loses its essence as it hangs in the balance between the authority of the military and the demands of the protestors. This point becomes more marked when considered alongside the second of the three factors identified here.
While the Military forms the transitional government, composed of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), effectively the governing body, then a state of “civil mentality” will not dominate the streets of Egypt. By civil mentality I mean the focus on post Mubarak period to which the masses have aspired. Even if protestors go home, collective consciousness will remain charged with anxiety and uncertainty. Obviously, this has an effect on the country’s move towards a stable and long-lasting democratic form of governance. I should mention at this point, that the top generals in the Army, who monitor and govern, are old brothers-in-arms with the ousted leader. Their political influence has only increased over the last six months, and it will do so further while there is no civil government in power which could help minimise their role. It is notable that to date, the Military have not brought to trial any further elements of the old regime. And while their grip on power continues, their economic privileges stay intact. Their popularity has so far resided in the fact that it is a draft military made up of the people. But the SCAF has come to resemble a political body which takes on many of the characteristics of the old regime. The military became notorious for its trials of activists and journalists. Journalists Hossam El-Hamalawy and Rasha Azab were summoned by prosecution, Asmaa Mahfouz, who was accused of inciting violence against the military and insulting members of SCAF was referred to a military court and later released on bail. The presidential candidate Mohammed El-Baradei wrote on his twitter account “Military trials for young activists, while Mubarak & Co. stand before civilian courts, is a legal farce. Don’t abort the revolution”. The recent clashes between the protestors and military supporters are evidence of this. On Saturday 23rd July protestors moved from Tahrir Square towards the Defence Ministry, the headquarters of SCAF, in order to voice their demands for more freedom for the civilian government of Prime Minister, Essam Sharif, and also to condemn the military trials. More than 250 people were hurt in the clashes. Interestingly, the slogans during that protest were “down with the military” and branded the leader of SCAF Marshal Hussein Tantawi, as being “an agent of America.” It is inevitable that while the Military are part of the political machinery this will influence the outcomes of the future civil governance in the country. It is already the case that disagreement is rife between different groups while preparing for the upcoming parliamentary elections.
While these elections are regulated and administered by the Army, the political environment is emphatically militaristic and confrontational. The government of Essam Sharaf exits in the shadow of a military presence, and hence the climate is not dissimilar to the days of Mubarak. This point alone suggests there has been little progress in civil society.
I expand on my third factor with the contention that the Muslim Brotherhood or any other religiously oriented group in the Arab world always profit from any vacuum created in the social and political landscape. While the Muslim Brotherhood played no major role in the instigation or the process of the protests, they are likely to harvest the fruits of this unrest. Their overall policy is based on a ‘wait and see’ principle. They have heavily remained on the side of the military with the understanding that this will please the masses. However, the Brotherhood stance towards Mubarak’s trial is straightforward. They were keen for it, actively requested it, and they got it. That straightforward narrative was interrupted though, when at the second hearing of Mubarak’s trial, Judge Ahmed Rifaat announced that “In the public interest, the court had decided to stop the television broadcast of the court sessions beginning on 5th September 2011 until the announcement of the sentences". Voices on the street were denouncing the removal of the camera from the courtroom. It was seen to be a preposterous betrayal of the protestors who were killed and a disloyalty to their families. Further accusations were made that there is a deal between the military and Mubarak. Such a charged atmosphere extends the potential rift between the people and the military. It is easy to see how the Muslim Brotherhood will benefit from such circumstances. In the case of political parties, although there are over 20 registered parties in the country, they remain politically un-organised. Apart from their support to the encompassing cause of the protesting masses, these parties pursue their own agendas and are factional in nature.
Moreover, the government of Essam Sahraf, as mentioned above, has been overshadowed by the SCAF, and this curtails the performativity of civil institution. The clashes between opponents and supporters of Mubarak in front of the court testify to the critical point that has been reached in relation to this. The Muslim Brotherhood is established and well organised and they are poised to take up the role of “rescuer”. Their tactics include cunningly keeping a low profile while at the same time waiting for gaps to fill in the structure of ongoing debate and protests. They established the Muslim Brotherhood Political Party to run in the next parliamentary elections, scheduled this fall, appointing a Coptic Christian as its vice president. This is an obvious gesture to quell any fears they will use religion as a tool in their domestic political agenda. However, in their rhetoric on foreign policy and the future of Egypt’s relationship to its neighbours, they shall beat their rivals in election in an easy fashion. When asked, in a recent interview about Egypt’s treaty with Israel, Youssef Nada, a long time strategist for the Muslim Brotherhood, stated that the “treaty should be rewritten- to be fair to everyone.” Such statements are welcomed in Egypt as the treaty has long been viewed as an alliance between Mubarak and Israel rather than between the two countries. The Treaty was signed in 1979; Mubarak came to power in 1981 and became its de facto guardian. For many Egyptians it is a treaty very much identified with Mubarak’s strong ties with Israel. Therefore, when the Muslim Brotherhood plays popular tones and these will find wider audience on the street.
So far, the spirit of protest was subject to reason: “down-down with the regime for dignity and justice”. The reasoning underpinning this is the exchange of a regime that hindered justice for a new system which could restore it. Nonetheless, the courtroom in the case of Mubarak does not necessarily symbolise justice and seems more a vengeful form of catharsis for the people. Justice is known as the “first virtue of social institutions.” While the SCAF still holds ‘the’ momentary authority, one would assume that the spirit of wider social institutions lacks virtue.
Rational political protest must be guarded from becoming merely an instrument of revenge. That is, objectivity ought to prevail rather than the satisfaction of the deeply entrenched cultural and religious ethics of the Arab world. The true spirit of the early protest must remain authoritative and not be subjugated to over-hastiness and popular appeasement. I say that because these protests have not yet become fully incorporated into a body juridiques, and cannot be so while the military is still the governing body. Thus, the trial of Mubarak could remain of an ailing old man.
– Dr. Nath Aldalala’a – School of English Literature, Newcastle University, United Kingdom – contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.