People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 36

September 04, 2011

Dictator on Trial


Yohannan Chemerapally


IT was for the first time that an authoritarian ruler ousted from offices has been put on trial. The trial of the 83 year old Hosni Mubarak which started in the first week of August was an unusual and unprecedented event in recent Arab politics. Saddam Hussein’s trial in the view of the Arab street was a show trial organised and supervised under American military occupation. Mubarak’s trial on the other hand had materialised because of the grass roots pressure exerted by the groups which helped trigger the seismic changes that shook Egypt, the heart of the Arab world, earlier in the year. The trial of the deposed president has been going on intermittently. The last hearing was in mid-August when the judge decided to ban the live television coverage of the trial. The trial had attracted massive viewership in the Arab world and beyond.


More than six months had elapsed since Mubarak was forced to quit. Mubarak was under house arrest in his residence in the resort town of Sharm el Sheikh far away from Cairo, his former seat of power. Thousands of people had once again started to congregate in Tahrir Square demanding the speedy trials of all those responsible for the widespread corruption and brutality that had characterised the thirty year rule of Mubarak. More than nine hundred people were killed in the protests that shook Egypt during the 18 day uprising that led to the downfall of the regime in February.


There were also allegations that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces which stepped into the political vacuum left behind by the demise of the Mubarak government was seeking to shield the former president and his family members. The trial of the former strongman was repeatedly postponed on the grounds of ill-health. That Mubarak was an ill man was plain for everyone to see when he was brought on a hospital stretcher to a makeshift Courtroom located in a Cairo police academy in early August.  


Egyptians never expected to see their former president in a simple prison garb along with his two sons, Gamal and Alaa being tried in the full glare of television cameras in a cage. In Egypt, defendants in criminal trials are placed in cages with iron bars. “It is a decisive moment in the history of the Egyptian people to see this ousted president behind the prosecution cage after seeing him portrayed as a divine figure on television for decades”, told Mahmoud al Khodairy, a former judge and an outspoken critic of the Mubarak regime, to the media. Other prominent figures close to Mubarak facing trial in the same Court were Hussein Salem, a close business associate of Mubarak and Habib El-Adly, the former interior minister.




But the judicial system that is trying Mubarak was part of the political system that the former president had lorded over for more than three decades. The three judge panel presiding over the trial are all Mubarak appointees. All the crimes and misdemeanours conducted during Mubarak’s long reign will not come under the judicial scanner. Only a few corruption charges and his conduct during the revolutions will come under the purview of the trial. The three specific charges under which he is being tried relate to the killing of demonstrators during the countrywide upsurge against his government earlier in the year. The other tow charges against him are profiteering by abusing his position of power and the export of Egyptian gas to Israel at rates below that prevailing in the international market.


If found guilty, the former president faces a minimum prison term of five years. The maximum penalty is death. The former interior minister also faces similar charges. The charges against the others relate mainly to financial impropriety and face between five to fifteen years in prison. With the military council deciding to charge Mubarak and his close circle of defrauding the public, the ruling establishment has justified the former president’s ouster.


On July 21, prime minister, Essam Sharaf, introduced an amendment to the “Ghadr” (treason) law that was introduced after the 1952 July Revolution led by Gamal Abdel Nasser. “It is not enough to see the Mubarak’s henchmen and senior officials stand trial on criminal charges. They must also answer allegations of political corruption, including rigging parliamentary elections and paving the way for the former president’s son Gamal to inherit power from his father”, said Sharaf. “Changes to the treason law will help us get rid of those who manipulated political life under Mubarak”. If the amendment is passed, most of Mubarak’s close associates and the top leadership of the former ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) can be booked under the treason law. Mohamed Heikal, the doyen of Egyptian journalism and a close associate of Nasser has said that it was not enough to prosecute Mubarak for illegal profiteering and the ordering of killing of peaceful protestors. “Mubarak must be prosecuted for political corruption as well, for disrupting the Republican nature of Egypt and preparing the country for a father-son succession scenario. Mubarak gave the green light to the security forces and NDP officials to rig the elections, tinker with the constitution, and manipulate the State run media in favour of the son”, he said.


However many opposition parties want the treason law to be annulled. They describe the law as being fundamentally antidemocratic. “The law returns us to an age when the army dictated exceptional laws without the approval of an elected parliament”, said Ayman Noor, who had challenged Mubarak in the last presidential elections and was later sent to jail on trumped up charges. “It would be far better to amend the law on the sovereignty of the judiciary to give ordinary courts greater power in trying officials involved in corrupting political life”, said Noor, who is planning to contest the presidential elections again.




Mohamed Saad al-Katani, the secretary general of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, described the trial as a victory for post-revolution Egypt. “The presence of Mubarak on a bed inside the dock is a message from the ruling military council that no one is above the law”, al-Katani told the Egyptian media. Most of the senior leadership in the Brotherhood are openly supporting the ruling military council. Their party is expected to emerge as the single biggest group in parliament after elections are held later in the year. The secular opposition along with smaller Islamist parties wanted a new constitution to be in place before the elections. But the army which seems to have stuck a tacit alliance with the Brotherhood wants the new constitution to be drafted after the election of a new parliament. The student and youth groups that spearheaded the revolt in Tahrir Square are angry with the new developments. They feel that the Mubarak trial will be a “show trial” and the military will go on dominating the country with the help of its new found allies. They also fear that a new constitution that would be drafted will be more “Sharia oriented”.


In fact the military council ruling Egypt today was also originally appointed by Mubarak. Protest leaders have been saying that many of their compatriots are being held in military prisons and subjected to speedy trials by military courts while trials of the officials who have been arrested on graft charges are proceeding at a glacial pace. Most of the senior police officers who ordered snipers to shoot at protestors and were responsible for other atrocities have still not been brought to trial. On the other hand, activists criticising the army have been put on trial.  A blogger, Maikel Nabil was sentenced to three years in prison “for insulting the military”.


In recent weeks, protest groups all over Egypt have been demanding the dismissal of the caretaker government appointed by the military council and the replacement of the military council itself by a civilian council till elections are held later this year. New banners unfurled at Tahrir Square in August called for “serious purging and serious judging”. There also has been a growing demand for a “purge” in the judiciary and the media of all remnants of the previous regime. 


When the chief judge, Ahmad Rifaat, read out the charges against him, the hard of hearing Mubarak responded by simply stating that he “completely” denied all the accusations. The trial of Mubarak has been adjourned till August 15. The event will be a turning point in Egyptian history, An Egyptian human rights activist, Nasser Amin told the Egyptian paper Al Ahram that the public trial of the Egyptian president opened a new chapter in Egyptian politics and is “a giant step in the Arab world towards instituting the rule of law”. All over the Arab world which continues to be in the throes of ferment since the beginning of the year, the unfolding drama is being watched with great interest. Many heads of States in the region are facing big challenges to their longevity from their subjects.