The Critical, Cleansing Role of Justice

Rami G. Khouri

BEIRUT -- One of the most important, but also most delicate, aspects of the transformations in Tunisia and Egypt following the popular overthrow of their regimes is the series of court trials of former officials who are accused of various crimes, including killing demonstrators, abuse of power and corruption. This process is moving ahead more decisively now, with the announcement Monday by a Cairo court that it would merge the trials of former President Hosni Mubarak and ex-interior minister Habib Adly, both of whom are accused of killing protesters earlier this year. Adly and six of his aides would be tried on August 3 along with Mubarak and his two sons Alaa and Gamal, and exiled businessman Hussein Salem. Adly already has received a 12-year jail sentence for corruption. Former Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif has also been charged with corruption and will face a military trial.
The fact, venue and technicalities of these trials are incredibly important and should be monitored closely for three critical reasons:
1. They reflect the powerful need among ordinary citizens for a sense of justice that must be fulfilled if the widespread and deep feelings of injustice and abuse of power that motivated many of the demonstrators who overthrew the regime are finally to be relieved. Justice is a pivotal notion in the lives of ordinary men and women in Egypt and all Arab lands, and therefore a key criterion of the success of the post-revolutionary transformation now underway is how far justice can be seen to be done in such cases.
2. They speak much about the political values of the transitional power structure that includes armed forces officers and appointed civilians who have not been subjected to popular ratification, other than intermittent street demonstrations. The political values and culture that pertain today will pave the way for a new constitutional democracy in Egypt that is likely to influence political systems around the Arab world, as other regimes are similarly toppled or profoundly reformed.
3. They provide a sharp and clean separation between the ignominies of the past authoritarian and corrupt regimes and the opportunity for Egyptians and other Arabs to rebuild their governance systems on the basis of more humane values. Egypt cannot afford to remain in perpetual revolutionary mode, with street demonstrators challenging the military officers and the cabinet. This is physically and psychologically exhausting and will wreck the prospects of economic rejuvenation that are so critical for the country as a whole. Clean, fair court trials are the best way for justice to be done and for Egyptians to shift from anger about the past to hope and action for the future.
The fact that hundreds of protesters, including families of victims who were killed during the protests, attended Adly’s trial captures the importance of holding these trials in public and on television. The entire country needs to experience justice in action, and feel a sense of closure on the crimes and abuses of the past. Some of the trials will be held in military courts because the accused are retired military officers. Others will be tried in civil courts. In either case, it is critically important that the quality of justice be seen to be fair, transparent and above reproach, so that the new power structure in Egypt can start life with more credibility and legitimacy than the old one that is being held accountable for its crimes and abuses.
The fact that thousands of Egyptians have returned to the streets in recent weeks to demand that these trials be speeded up signifies just how important this issue is for millions of citizens. This need for strict legal justice to run its course must be understood within the wider demand among Egyptians and most other Arabs for governing systems that pay more attention to the dictates of social justice. This includes fighting corruption and abuse of power, addressing the basic socio-economic needs of citizens, and responding to the expectation that all citizens can enjoy a life with decent education and fair opportunities to achieve their full human potential in whatever field they choose. This is the meaning of the persistent and vocal demands for speedy trials of officials, holding accountable those who are accused of corruption, and working for the redistribution of wealth.
Credible and fair court trials of accused former officials and businessmen are also important because they quickly rekindle mass trust in the vital role of the judiciary as the final arbiter of the law. If the current revolutions and rebellions in the Arab world aim to do anything, they aim to replace the rule of men with guns with the rule of law. So the trials of former officials in Egypt and Tunisia are really about charting the way to the future, as much as they are about leaving the dark alleys of the past. Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. Copyright © 2011 Rami G. Khouri -- distributed by Agence Global