Mubarak's Trial: Justice or Distraction in Egypt?


The trial against former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak began last week among widespread protest and international media attention. The Mubarak trial is another major milestone in the Egyptian revolution that resulted not only in the ouster of Mubarak, but also calls for new elections and the drafting of a new Egyptian constitution. Although the trial may be a means to achieve justice, Egyptian leaders must be careful not to turn the trial into a charade. Rather, the courts should seek a quick, objective, and decisive trial that will allow the country to move forward toward permanent democratic reform.

The trial of Mubarak and his sons Gamal and Alaa have a chance at resolving decades of corruption and brutality characteristic of a police state under single party rule. Indeed, many human rights activists see the trial as an opportunity to bring justice to a country that has seen little of it. But therein lies the conundrum facing Egypt — a difficult struggle between retribution for the past and the desire to build a better future. 

A long, drawn-out trial would do little good for a country with so many challenges ahead. New elections are scheduled for this fall, and the country must navigate a new political landscape shaped by a variety of significant constitutional reforms. Multiple political parties are forming and planning elections strategies.  Prominent politicians have declared presidential runs including Mohamed El Baradei, the former head of the IAEA, and Amr Mousa, the former head of the Arab League, which is headquartered in Cairo. With so much political activity scheduled for the coming months, a dramatic court case could distract politicians and the media from other long-term priorities such as democratic reform and economic growth.

Mubarak is already in very poor health. The 83-year-old former president appeared at the trial on a bed placed behind a metal cage, a pathetic site indeed for a former head of state. It is unlikely that Mubarak would live for long past the trial even if he were sentenced to a lesser punishment like house arrest. Although the desire to see Mubarak sentenced, including a possible death sentence, may be justified, spending excessive resources on a dying man is unnecessary. Egypt has long suffered from a habit of looking toward the past, such as the military accomplishments against Israel in 1973. But Egypt must move on. Letting Mubarak go quickly may be the best way to avoid focusing too heavily on the past instead of looking toward the future.

Indeed, moving forward must be the goal of Egypt’s reformers and the judges assigned to the Mubarak trial. A fair trial is necessary, but a trial that distracts provides little benefit to anyone. After all, a protracted and controversial trial could hinder the democratic transition, a move that would only benefit the entrenched military apparatus that currently rules the country. The stakes are simply too high for Egypt to look over its shoulder.

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