Freeing The Pharaoh

On Saturday, an Egyptian judge dismissed murder charges against former president Hosni Mubarak over the killing of hundreds of protesters during the 2011 uprising:

The Cairo court erupted in cheers when the judge said Mubarak should not have been a defendant in the case as the charges against him were added late. Charges against seven senior ex-officials were also dropped. The decision could be appealed. Victims’ relatives waiting outside expressed dismay and frustration. And later police fired tear gas to disperse a crowd of about 2,000 people who gathered near Tahrir Square to voice their opposition to the decision. …

As well as the murder charge, Mubarak was also cleared of a corruption charge involving gas exports to Israel. His sons Gamal and Alaa were also cleared of separate corruption charges by the same court on Saturday.

Mubarak remains in prison on a separate, three-year sentence for embezzlement but could walk free soon, as his pretrial detention for the murder charges will now count as time served. Hossam Bahgat explains the technicality that could set the ex-dictator free:

Following Mubarak’s abdication of power in February 2011, Public Prosecutor Abdel Meguid Mahmoud decided to investigate the killing of protesters during the 18 days of revolt that ended Mubarak’s tenure. On March 23, 2011, Mahmoud, who had served under Mubarak and remained in office until late 2012, indicted Mubarak’s Interior Minister Habib al-Adly and his senior assistants, but not Mubarak himself, for having ordered or otherwise abetted the killing of protesters throughout the country. Two months later, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces, which had succeeded Mubarak in power, faced pressure from street demonstrations demanding accountability for Mubarak too. On May 24, 2011, the public prosecutor added Mubarak as a co-defendant in the case.

The fact that Mubarak was only added as a defendant two months after the case had been referred to trial is the technicality the judge used today to dismiss the charge against him. By not indicting Mubarak from the beginning, the judge reasoned, the prosecution had made “an implied decision that there were no grounds for criminal proceedings” against him. This “no-grounds” decision can be formally reversed by the public prosecutor within a window of three months. Mubarak’s defense lawyers argued, and today the court agreed, that the prosecution reversed the implied no-grounds designation of Mubarak without following proper procedures. For that technical error, the judge ruled the charge against Mubarak for the killing of protesters as inadmissible and dismissed that charge without considering it or ruling on its merits.

Though not unexpected, the ruling serves as a depressing coda to Egypt’s failed revolution and subsequent regression into military dictatorship. That the ruling seemed to follow the public mood, which has soured on revolution over the past three years, is part of the problem, Tamara Cofman Wittes adds:

[T]he trial’s outcome is symbolic of a broken, enfeebled justice system where outcomes often seem arbitrary and where prosecutors and judges often seem to follow public sentiment — first heeding calls for blood by charging the former president on hastily constructed evidence, then dismissing the charges after three years of chaos made Mubarak’s thirty years of dictatorship look rosy in retrospect. The biased workings of this system are also evident in the fact that this judge properly dismissed Mubarak’s charges on technical grounds, whereas preposterously flimsy and/or irrelevant evidence and testimony were allowed to stand in the conviction of three journalists this year and the convictions of 43 NGO workers in 2013. In some ways, this broken system is just one small example of the broken Egyptian state that is the legacy of Mubarak’s long rule.

Juan Cole attempts to find some cause for hope:

The only silver lining of the current situation is that the old Mubarak political and financial elite, the fulul or left-overs, are being reincorporated into public life. Those who committed criminal acts should not be rehabilitated, of course. But South Africa dealt with former regime elements by having them confess in detail to their crimes, after which they were released. What’s wrong here is that Mubarak and his gang are still unwilling to confess. For left-overs who had not been guilty of committing any obvious crimes, it is probably healthier to have them come back into public life than be excluded and sullen (the wealthy are in a position to make a lot of trouble).

One big difference between so far relatively stable Tunisia and unstable Libya is that after the first two years, members of the party of former Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali were allowed to come back into politics in 2014. In Libya, as in Iraq, the old elite was excluded and stigmatized, and instability ensued. In Egypt there is the wrinkle that the secondary elite, the Muslim Brotherhood, has been more thoroughly excluded from public life than the fulul ever were.

And Bruce Riedel identifies one group of people who are perfectly happy with the ruling, namely the Saudi monarchy:

The Kingdom supported the 2013 coup immediately, with the King publicly endorsing the putsch minutes after it took place. Riyadh has organized the Gulf states to bankroll the generals’ regime since — at a cost of billions. Getting Mubarak out of prison has been a Saudi priority ever since the coup. The coup reversed the momentum of the Arab Spring and extinguished the most important experiment in Arab democracy ever, two key Saudi goals. The defeat of the Muslim Brotherhood was another major objective for Riyadh. The Saudis believe the coup substantially reduced the danger of unrest inside the Kingdom by terminating a dangerous role model.