The Mubarak Trial and the Promise of Justice

Rami G. Khouri

BEIRUT -- The trial of former Egyptian President Husni Mubarak and his two sons that started in Cairo Wednesday is stirring and historic because it captures a rare moment of renaissance in Egypt and the Arab world, a rebirth of a people and their political culture that had died long ago and to a large extent detoured from the march of human history. The most telling and operative aspect of the court proceedings Wednesday were the words “justice is the basis of governance” inscribed in Arabic on the front of the judge’s dais. Here was the symbol, and also the substance, of a moribund land come back to life, where the citizenry’s mass ignominy and shame are slowly being replaced with national pride, self-confidence and hope.
It is hard to exaggerate the symbolism of what happened in that Cairo courtroom Wednesday. Nothing like this sort of cleansing and rebirth has ever been experienced in the Arab world in the past century, since the modern Arab state system was born. This is why for six months now, the entire Middle East has followed day-to-day events in Egypt with a combination of awe and anticipation. Arabs everywhere are deeply impressed by the dramatic and continuing transformation of Egyptian political culture, and fully aware that what happens in Egypt is likely to influence the future of their countries. The good news and the steps forward continue to flow, week after week, alongside the difficulties and frustrations of slow political transformation and economic revitalization. It was clear from the start that what was launched in January 2011 would need months and years to run its course, as an exhausted, corrupt old system of authoritarian rule is replaced by a new and democratic governance structure that has to be built from the ground up.
The Mubarak trial is a special moment for many reasons, but one stands out above all the rest: it reassures Egyptians and Arabs that an essential building block of a democratic and equitable new Egyptian system is already in place -- a fair and independent justice system. The sight of Mubarak and his sons Gamal and Alaa, former interior minister Habib Adly, along with other accused former officials, in a public trial where they have a chance to argue and prove their innocence is one of the most important signs to date of the heady promise of this Egyptian revolution. It affirms in a way that has been missing from Egypt for the last 60 years -- 60 years! -- of military-dominated governments that nobody is above the law, and that everybody has access to the protection of the due process of law.
I am impressed and buoyed by these developments because I believe that the three essential elements of credible democracy -- or movement towards democracy, in the Egyptian case -- are now in place: a respectable and independent judicial system, a free press and other means for citizens to express themselves, and mechanisms by which the authority of civilians can challenge or temper the rule of military men (including parliaments and constitutional protections). This is why the start of this trial is so significant. It is partly about dealing with the crimes and traumas of the past; but it is much more about asserting the promise and hopes of the future of the Egyptian people, who went to bed Wednesday night confident that public officials who engage in criminal activity in the future are likely to be held accountable for their ill deeds – in a fair court.
Most importantly, perhaps, the trial is important and historic because it provides a unique example of how the bad can be transformed into the good in this messy, often derelict, Arab world that we have inherited from the last four generations of selfish rulers. The Mubarak trial -- however it turns out -- sends the simple but powerful message that we should never lose hope in the fundamental sense of justice and fairness that permeates so many aspects of Arab life and culture, but that has often been lost in the lust for power and money that dominates so many dimensions of Arab public authority and governance.
“Justice” is not a newly discovered realm for Arab citizens. It has long been a rallying cry for opposition movements across the Arab world during the past several generations, whether Islamists, nationalists, tribalists, progressives or others. Justice largely disappeared from public and private life, however, when military and security men and their executive branch underlings gutted, bought or terrorized the independent judiciary, and stacked parliament with their own ilk. Wednesday in Cairo, however, justice resurfaced with drama. We should keep in mind, though, that the return of the court to Egyptian life, rather than the demise of the accused, was the really important story and force that will endure. 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