The Trial Behind the Mubarak Trial

08/04/2011 01:16 pm ET | Updated Oct 04, 2011
  • Tom Perriello Special Envoy for the Great Lakes of Africa Region, U.S. Department of State

Co-written with Ben Naimark-Rowse

The historic trial of former Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak started and then halted yesterday. It is unclear if and when a verdict will be reached, but the once unthinkable image of the ex-strongman in the dock will endure as his harshest sentence.

If Mubarak is the clear loser from this trial, the real question will be who wins. Key political forces are already maneuvering to see who can distance themselves the most from the old regime and define the New Egypt. TV viewership spikes during Ramadan, and Egyptians will be listening not just to the trial of the decade by day, but also to the endless hours of TV talk show debates and tea shop chatter late into the night.

The military is arguing its case for stability and a rapid transition. They are likely to use the imagery of the trial to suggest that the past has been laid to rest under their aegis, and thus they should be trusted to shepherd the country into its next era. The revolutionaries could use the trial to highlight the depth and persistence of corruption, and thus the need for deeper reforms and purges of officials. They believe a rushed election will be used not to promote democracy but to put a façade of legitimacy on the same old kleptocracy. The Muslim Brotherhood will spend the month providing desperately needed social services to Egyptians on hard times, while reminding people that they were always the steady opposition of the tyrant currently on trial. They may hope that other groups focus on the trial, while they are out winning votes.

The military is in the best position to win the public relations war, both because Egyptians are eager for stability and because they are increasingly willing to repress critics. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) had been losing popularity as they became the public face of the government, particularly after resurgent protests turned a daily spotlight on persistent corruption and inaction. However, SCAF leaders orchestrated a highly effective counter-revolution, including ramping up anti-American rhetoric and entering a loose alliance of convenience with the ultra-conservative Salafists. The tension this produced sent many reformist groups out of the square and increased public support for the military to forcibly clear those who remained. They will try to reinforce this "adults in the room" role through their management of the trial.

However, the trial presents challenges for the SCAF, as the line between Mubarak and today's military leadership is blurred at best. Field Marshall Tantawi, the country's acting president, is 75 years old and served at the dictator's side for decades. In recent weeks, SCAF leadership has taken serious steps to increase their grip on power and decrease transparency. Thoughtful observers see the writing on the wall in the narrow limits of the charges under consideration that those in charge are not eager for prosecutors or the public to look under too many rocks.

Throughout July, it looked like the revolutionaries might buck the odds again heading into Ramadan. After being soundly defeated at the polls during the March referendum, the reformers stumbled but regained their footing in a "second revolution" on July 8th that focused public debate back on the purging of corrupt officials and structural reforms. What re-occupying the square lost them in popular support, they made up for by flexing political muscle. Their demands for real democracy drew clear lines in the sand -- lines the US cannot straddle much longer -- and they had a few weeks of seeming to "govern from the square." Ultimately though, they were rather ineffective at messaging and produced irritation in Cairo and confusion in Upper Egypt. When the military moved to violently clear the square, public outrage was muted. Mubarak's trial provides the revolutionaries with a fresh chance to focus the nation on corruption, sovereignty, and a real break from the past -- without blocking several of the busiest streets in Cairo.

Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood will use the trial like they have other phases since the Revolution -- as something they hope others will obsess about while they focus on how to win the election. Already the most politically organized, their electoral prospects are likely to improve further. As they do every Ramadan, the Brotherhood will be in communities providing medical care, tutoring, food, and a few comments about politics and religion. They may even comment on the latest news from the trials, reminding everyone that they spent decades being repressed by the Mubarak regime.

The legacy of Mubarak's trial will be a verdict on the New Egypt. Was this revolution about the removal of a dictator or the establishment of democracy? Will it be about prosecuting select kleptocrats or preventing future corruption? The major forces shaping the new Egypt have had a few rounds to make mistakes. With the nation's attention focused on this unprecedented event, each side has another chance to state their case. Ultimately the trial behind the trial will be about whether those in charge allow the people to reach their own verdict on which vision for Egypt's future emerges from these arguments about its past.

Tom Perriello is a former Member of Congress who previously worked on justice and security issues in West Africa, Afghanistan and Sudan. He has conducted hundreds of interviews throughout Egypt over the past three months about the post-Mubarak transition.

Ben Naimark-Rowse is a graduate student at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. Previously he directed public opinion research and criminal justice reform programming in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America.