Hosni Mubarak got a bitter birthday present when Egypt’s justice minister said the former president could face the death penalty for the brutal crackdown on protests that ultimately pushed him from power. Mubarak, who turned 83 in failing health, is in detention at a hospital in Sharm el-Sheikh while prosecutors investigate charges of corruption, abuse of state funds and the killing of roughly 800 protesters.
Since the fall of Mubarak’s regime, the swing of revolutionary justice has scooped up former officials, bitten billionaire businessmen, and confined Gamal and Alaa Mubarak, once the golden princes of Egypt, to the bare walls of Tora prison. With Suzanne Mubarak’s detention and subsequent heart attack on Friday, the whole former first family has been taken down by the new order.
But could justice go too far, at too high a price to Egypt? The first and easiest case of courtroom payback was the case of Habib Al Adly, former Interior Minister and one of the most despised men in the country. On May 5 he was sentenced to 12 years in prison on the first of several charges against him. It was an unprecedented slap at all that al Adly represents – the feared system of secret prisons, torture chambers, and brutal intolerance of dissent.
Swiftly, the court took down an attack dog of the old regime, but to the crowds that still gather in Tahrir Square it was just the start. Ahmed Neguib, a student organizer during the revolution, told me he sees al Adly and his henchmen as Egypt’s equivalent of Nazis, which would make this, loosely, the age of the Arab Nuremberg. It’s an imperfect analogy, but for Arabs it’s a similar catharsis.
“Yes we want Habib al Adly in court, but we want the bigger guys. We want Mubarak,” he said. “Until that happens, people are going to keep getting angry.”
As Egypt grapples with transitional justice – the judicial cleansing of society after a regime turnaround – there are hard questions with no clear answers. Who bears the guilt of a rotten system that left blood on so many hands? Should blame sit at the top with men like Habib al Adly and Hosni Mubarak? Should mid-level executioners be caught in the net? What about the baltagiya, the henchmen in the lower ranks, or the part-time mercenaries who’d take 50 Egyptian pounds to pound down protesters? In a political culture where some would rat out their neighbors for little more than sneezing at the regime, the guilt of association paints a wide outer circle.
“What's happening in Egypt is happening without rhyme or reason,” said Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment. “If Egypt goes ahead trying people without an overall plan – how degrees of responsibility are going to be handled and how far the purges are going to go – it risks becoming a downward spiral.”
For now, the directions are dictated by the street. Military leaders, who are doing as much as they need to keep the crowds quiet, respond to raw emotions and manage the mob by twitching to its calls for action.
“They need to demonstrate a significant amount of daylight between themselves and the Mubarak era,” said Steven Cook, an expert on Egypt with the Council on Foreign Relations. “They’ll have to take these steps in which they at least seem to place Hosni Mubarak in the docks. Their hope is that he’s so sick that he will pass away before they ever have to take that dramatic step.” Would-be democrats like Amr Moussa and Mohamed El Baradei are also playing to the crowds, calling for Mubarak’s head as a talking point on the presidential campaign.
On a regional level, what changes the game and chills the neighbors is the precedent set in the Cairo courts: leaders once so powerful that they had no open critics, now at the mercy of a judge and jury. For the first time an Arab regime is on trial, criminalizing what had been considered textbook tactics for state security – brutal repression as standard procedure. Hosni Mubarak, functionally the dean of longtime Arab leaders, set the model for the Middle East.
His regime had its foot soldiers, an estimated 400,000 security agents at the Interior Ministry alone. That’s where analyst Marina Ottaway sees a problem: too much justice, moving too fast, too close to Mubarak, will kick up the hornets.
“There are supporters of Mubarak,” she said. “Who knows what these people would do if he were tried and sentenced?”
Ottaway points to the cautionary case of Iraq: the hanging of Saddam Hussein, the politicized witch hunt of de-Baathification, and the opening of so many intelligence files propelling more violence. Serving justice to the old regime “has the potential to tear at countries that are trying to pull themselves together and build more decent political systems.”
The emerging revolutionary justice, Arabian style, has troubling trends and steep consequences. Emotion may override reason. Old grievances, sectarian vendettas, and tribal loyalties will be a factor. And the whole exercise, fueled by anger, pulls energy and attention away from building a new state.
“Every system has its own mechanism for this kind of thing, Arabs are now developing their own system for the first time in modern history,” said columnist Rami Khouri at the Issam Fares Institute. He added with a sigh and slight optimism, “There’s no perfect justice.”