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A Morton's Fork for Egypt's Generals

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MUBARAK
AP

The trial of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak is now underway despite fears that members of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the country's interim ruling body, might shield their former boss from the humiliation of the courtroom. But SCAF, which has already drawn criticism in recent weeks for delaying the trial of former interior minister Habib el-Adly, may have opened itself up to more scrutiny than it bargained for by relegating Mubarak to the infamous defendant's "cage."

The first day of proceedings, which was devoted mainly to pretrial motions, the reading of charges, and the recording of "not guilty" pleas, already revealed that SCAF chief Mohammed Tantawi may have assumed command of security operations on January 28, just three days into the revolution and well before the violence erupted between protesters and camel-riding thugs on February 2nd. Such a revelation -- which promises to feature centrally in Fardid el-Dib's defense of the bed-ridden dictator -- paints a very different picture of the military's role in the violence that left nearly 900 dead.

SCAF has already faced rebuke by protesters and rights groups for its use of violence against demonstrators on February 26, March 9, April 9, April 12 and, most recently, August 1, but it has not altogether forfeited the trust of the people, many of whom still believe that the army and the people were "one hand together" during those heady days in Tahrir. But the potential for a trial to expose a less benign side of SCAF is not the only reason many were surprised to see a helicopter carrying the ex-president appear on the horizon at just before 9 o'clock on Wednesday morning.

A public trial -- broadcast to millions on television -- could also shed light on the corrupt financial dealings and less-than savory labor practices that allowed the military to come into possession of firms totaling some 5 to 40 percent of Egypt's gross domestic product during Mubarak's tenure. Additionally, it could make the military's economic empire, which consists of dozens of service sector enterprises as well as fourteen factories that manufacture everything from jeeps to television sets, more vulnerable to the greedy hands of parliamentarians. As Tarek Masoud recently mused in the Journal of Democracy, "Whatever the precise size of the military's holdings, it stands to reason that it would want to protect them from grasping politicians who could be tempted to meet popular demands for redistribution by dipping into the army's coffers."

Prior to the start of Mubarak's trial, SCAF was indeed doing its best to keep its financial dealings under wraps. In particular, SCAF's recent "declaration of principles" -- intended to serve as ground rules for the country's impending constitution-making process -- clearly indicated that Egypt's longstanding tradition of shielding the military's budget from parliamentary scrutiny ought to be continued.

But what Mubarak's trial might unearth isn't as worrisome as what it could provoke: A souring of relations with Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries who have pledged billions in soft loans to bolster Egypt's reeling economy. According to an unnamed SCAF official quoted by Ahram Online, an Egyptian state-owned media outlet, "Some Arab rich countries offered to give Egypt a lot of economic assistance, in billions of dollars, in exchange of granting Mubarak immunity from trial." This report directly contradicts SCAF's official line, which is that Egypt does not "accept any pressure from any state, and this is a purely internal Egyptian issue," according to Prime Minister Essam Sharaf.

Still, as Marina Ottaway, director of the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, recently said in an interview with Foreign Policy, "Gulf states like Saudi are giving money because they want to keep Egypt in their orbit." With Egypt declining IMF and World Bank loans and accepting $4 billion from Saudi Arabia alone, it is likely that King Abdullah expected SCAF to be more sympathetic to his entreaties.

The symbolism of putting Mubarak on trial will not be lost on the Saudis, whose standing policy of granting foreign dictators asylum -- from Uganda's Idi Amin to Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh -- is looking as outdated as their form of government. And access to cash isn't the only thing SCAF risks losing if it runs afoul of Riyadh. Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians who live and work in Saudi and other Gulf states could lose their jobs in the event of a political dispute, compounding Egypt's already dire unemployment problem. So while making good on its promise to give Mubarak his just deserts may have spared SCAF the wrath of more angry protests in the short term, the other prong of this Morton's Fork may impale the generals yet.