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I have recently published an article entitled ‘Trying Mubarak’, discussing what has been called ‘the trial of the century’ in Egypt. I argue that the trial of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, which began on 3 August 2011, represents a barometer of the fortunes of the January Revolution as a whole.

A common challenge confronts both the achievement of accountability in the trial, and the fulfilment of the Revolution’s demands, namely the role of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). This article discusses the achievement which the holding of this trial represents in the context of the revolution, as well as the practical challenges faced by the legal team of the victims’ families. It then considers the reasons why the SCAF presided over such delay in the progress of legal proceedings against Mubarak, and relates these to the reasons for its flawed behaviour overall throughout the transition period.

Overall, the military council appears to desire a transition to a civilian government not unlike the Mubarak regime in terms of overall control, business orientation and collaboration, accompanied by deference to the military – Islamist politicians are useful allies in this regard. This is why, since February, the SCAF have employed calculated divide and rule tactics to contain the revolution’s impact, and dissipate its momentum.

As regards the trial, it only went ahead after the popular pressure exerted by the 8 July Tahrir Square sit-in and demonstrations. SCAF generals will not allow the hearings to open up a Pandora’s Box that might expose the extent of their own privileges under the old regime. They are also protecting certain Gulf and US interests from similar exposure in this trial.  As Mubarak’s defence now attempts to expose these interests, the SCAF is likely to respond forcefully, combining repression, diversion and media control.

The democracy movement will have to be wary of the divisive impact of these tactics: fortunately, the trial’s sound progress is a unifying concern. In discussions and interviews in the press and on the television, people of different backgrounds and political orientations expressed satisfaction at seeing the dictator on trial. The Mubarak trial may yet restore the focus of the democracy movement, and test the credibility of the military council to its limit. In fact, this trial should only be the beginning, since it covers just two, albeit bloody, days in a period of state violence spanning weeks, and in a term of corrupt dictatorship lasting thirty years. Judging from the public debate, it has inspired and revitalised a large sector of Egyptian lawyers and rights activists. No matter the outcome of this case, the repression, corruption and negligence that characterised the Mubarak era will surely generate enough trials to keep him imprisoned for the significant future.

The full article was published in Jadaliyya, 14 August 2011

Dr Reem Abou-El-Fadl is Jarvis Doctorow Junior Research Fellow in International Relations & Conflict Resolution in the Middle East

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