A Revolution Stalled? Scenes from Mubarak’s Trial
Yasmine El Rashidi
The Hollywood-like sign that marks Egypt’s Police Academy has dropped some letters in recent weeks. The name of its long-time patron and leader, MUBARAK, is gone from the miles of walls and many gates that surround its sprawling headquarters complex on the outskirts of Cairo. It is here—twelve miles from Tahrir Square on a stretch of desert known as New Cairo that is dotted with the skeletal foundations of unrealized real estate projects—that the trial of the deposed leader began on August 3. It took place in a converted conference hall where Mubarak had often been saluted by the very forces who were the symbolic target of the protests that ultimately toppled him.
Along with Mubarak, the defendants—who have been charged with illicit profiteering, conspiring to kill protesters, and using state resources for personal gain—include his two sons, Alaa and Gamal, and his former security chief Habib El-Adly, along with six aides (the businessman and Mubarak ally Hussein Salem is to be tried too, in absentia). The proceedings were set to begin at 9 AM, but we had been instructed to be there at 6 AM “Very few of you will get in,” a contact at the Ministry of Information had told me, intimating what promised to be stringent security procedures and long lines. Most of us would have to watch the trial on a large-screen TV outside.
I made my way to the academy at 6:45 AM on the morning of August 3 with the prominent activist Esraa Abdel Fattah. Better known as the “Facebook Girl,” Esraa had twice been jailed and interrogated by graduates of the Police Academy. “The date we chose [for the first protest on January 25] was important,” she told me in the taxi on the way to the trial (it coincided with Police Day, a national holiday). “God has his ways. This is one of life’s full circles. The question is whether he will actually turn up.”
Despite official summons to appear in court, few thought the ailing 83-year-old Mubarak would actually show up, and as we listened to the voice of a State radio commentator on the drive over announcing that Mubarak’s plane was preparing to depart Sharm El Sheikh for Cairo, we still had our doubts. In recent weeks, Mubarak’s lawyer, Farid El Deeb, had claimed by turns that Mubarak was refusing to eat, had fallen into coma, was battling stomach cancer, and was suffering from heart palpitations.
Yasmine El Rashidi
At the entrance gate, a couple thousand people were already waiting. Along with citizens and protesters, many of them were journalists, lawyers, or families of the martyrs; and many more were security agents—officers, soldiers, intelligence detectives, and hundreds of riot police equipped with batons and facemasks. Central Security Forces trucks and army tanks seemed to be everywhere. Pro- and anti-Mubarak crowds were hoisting banners with the ex-president’s picture. “We are showing Israel the pilot who fought them and was victorious now being betrayed by his people,” read the most conspicuous one. Others read like letters: “I’m sorry, Your son,” or “Forgive us, we are your children.” A few people held posters of Mubarak’s face, throttled by a hanging rope.
In many ways, Mubarak’s trial crept up on us, overshadowed by passionate debates in recent weeks about the post-revolutionary state of the nation. Many were concerned about the growing influence of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist factions, the spread of crime and violence in the streets, and the country’s hard-hit economy. On July 8, following a typical carnival-like Friday protest, the already tense and fractious atmosphere in the country seemed to intensify. In the square itself, scattered groups chanted for diverse demands: they wanted an end to military trials and former regime officials to be brought to justice, but also a cleansing of State-run media and the return of Mubarak’s alleged $70 billion assets to the people. “Our money, our money, our money,” one group chanted. Stages funded by different groups (including the Muslim Brotherhood, a local cultural center, a wealthy engineer) had again been set up in Tahrir, providing platforms for increasingly aggressive competing speakers and performers. The community spirit that had once been the pride of the square seemed to be gone—there was litter everywhere, and men openly ogled women.
Most people left the square as the night wore on, but a few hundred stayed—setting up tents, closing off the square with metal barricades and barbed wire, and calling for an open-ended sit-in. Many of those left were family-members of protesters who had been killed; others were middle and upper class English-speaking activists for whom activism has become a modish raison d’être; some were restless young men who had nothing to lose and everything to gain by being in the square, where free food, drink, and entertainment were in abundance. Then, of course, there were some others: the odd lawyers, a few farmers, teachers, opposition party members, and disgruntled government employees. They were a minority in a country of 82 million, but with English-speaking activists among them, their voices were being heard. “It’s ridiculous, anything these activists say, journalists write as fact,” a friend tweeted that week. “#tahrir and #twitter do not represent Egyptian public opinion, #fact4westerners” another wrote.
In the days following, many people I spoke to who had supported the original uprising had grown weary of this kind of sit-in. “Who are these people in the Square?” I was hearing repeatedly. “These are not the youth of the revolution. They’ve dragged our country into the gutter,” I heard one man shout into the air as he walked by the square.
On July 23, the fifty-ninth anniversary of the 1952 ousting of the monarchy by the Egyptian military and the fifteenth day of the July 8 sit-in, the protesters planned a march from the square to the Ministry of Defense. The march ended violently when young men from a neighborhood the marchers were passing through started pelting them with stones, provoking the army to get involved. The clashes escalated, leaving dozens injured and several people missing. One young man subsequently died from injuries sustained to his head that night. Despite the violence, the clashes subsided relatively quickly and most of the protesters later returned to Tahrir, back to their sit-in. Although the protesters blamed the military for the clashes, it had seemed inevitable that they would intervene to stop the march given the protest movement’s history of attempted, and sometimes successful, storming of State buildings and embassies. That night, it seemed probable that they would try to do the same at the Ministry of Defense.
Yasmine El Rashidi
In the weeks since the July 8 sit-in began, critics have tried to point out that continuing to press the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) to “meet the demands of the revolution” actually has allowed the military to become more entrenched in power. “Thanks to hysterical selfish voices saying ‘we’re not ready for elections,’ we’re stuck with military rule till NEXT year,” Amira Howeidy, a prominent political reporter, tweeted in fury the evening of July 23. Many people feel that with parliamentary elections looming, it is time to move on from Tahrir protests and shift to a political strategy aimed at changing the system from within. Esraa herself had gone down to the square several times and tried to convince activist friends to leave.
On July 29, yet another protest in Tahrir Square—this one orchestrated by the Muslim Brotherhood—further darkened the public mood. The Brotherhood announced that they would take to the square with a list of concrete demands, bringing with them a coalition of Islamist supporters. They planned the event for days, meeting with youth activists, opposition party leaders and members, liberals, leftists, communists, socialists. But the result was a fiasco: there were fervent religious chants calling for an Islamic state, and an Israeli flag was set in flames by a group of Salafis. Both the Muslim Brotherhood and the liberals denounced the religious sloganeering and broken promises, and announced they would leave the square that afternoon and return at night once the Salafis were gone. “I am upset at what happened, but I am also upset at how this is being interpreted [by the media],” Esraa, who is veiled and was involved in the planning and discussions with the Brotherhood ahead of the protest, told me. “The Islamists were part of the revolution too. There were different groups of youth who participated in the revolution, different parties, different types of activists. I don’t know how it has been turned into ‘the youth revolutionaries of Tahrir’ versus everyone else.”
What’s happening in Egypt these days is much more complex than the now-familiar narrative about Islamists versus revolutionaries, pro-democracy versus pro-Mubarak, protesters versus SCAF. By the time the military did eventually disperse the remaining Tahrir occupants on August 1, even the square itself was divided: the English-speaking “activists” had packed up the day before and returned to the luxury of their homes and to Western-style coffee shops. Many young working class men remained in the square, as did families of martyrs. The upper-middle-class activists tried to convince them to pack up and go, to re-open the square. “Why should we,” several of them told me much later that night as we walked through Tahrir. “We have nothing to go home to.” Even when the army began beating them and breaking their tents the following day, opinion was divided. Some onlookers stood by saying “good riddance.”
Outside the trial this week, that sense of fragmentation was clear again in the very different responses to Mubarak’s arrival in the courtroom. At 9:59 AM, following his two sons, an ashen looking ex-president was wheeled into the small barred dock on an ambulance stretcher. Inside the courtroom and outside the academy, people gasped. The scuffles and rock-throwing by anti-Mubarak crowds outside the academy—who tried to pelt the massive screen in protest against what they called “media lies” and pro-Mubarak banners beneath it—suddenly subsided. Shock washed over people’s faces. A few shed tears. A man kneeled down to the hot tarmac floor and kissed it, thanking God. He called on everyone else to do the same. Families of the martyrs looked faint.
During the court session, which lasted almost three hours, dozens of lawyers clamoured to take the microphone. Speaking on behalf of various groups (some lawyers represented families of martyrs, others were simply there to raise charges against Mubarak), they read out their demands. One man screamed that Mubarak had died in 2004, and that the man on the bed had been planted by America. “I demand DNA tests,” he said. When Mubarak’s defense lawyer finally took the floor himself, he was calm, composed, brief. His list of demands included bringing 1,631 witnesses to the stand—a ploy, it seemed, to drag the trial out for years. He also called on Field Marshal Tantawi as a witness, citing him as the man who took over on January 28—a moment that, in retrospect, may mark the turning of the Mubaraks against Tantawi, just as he too appears to have betrayed them. Mubarak’s two sons, Alaa and Gamal, stood by their father’s stretcher with vacant looks. They each held copies of the Holy Quran. Mubarak himself looked bored, or perhaps drugged. He raised his head on occasion to peer out through the dock’s bars. At one point he glanced at his wristwatch (a leather-banded Omega, a courtroom employee claimed when I later asked about the brand).
Yasmine El Rashidi
We all watched the proceedings mesmerized, shaken by the irony that on the very same podium where Mubarak once was applauded now sat Ahmed Rifaat, head of the Cairo Appeals Court and the judge appointed to try him. For the first time that day, State TV dropped “former,” and referred to Mubarak as the “deposed” president. He was now a man officially behind bars.
The activists and protesters who had occupied Tahrir last month seemed unsatisfied, calling the trial a circus and farce. “They’re trying to play on people’s emotions by putting Mubarak on a stretcher #mubaraktrial” people started tweeting. Many outside the courtroom demanded a verdict that day. Bloggers invited to comment on TV stations insisted, “We want him hanged in Tahrir.” But for many other Egyptians, seeing the fallen leader on a stretcher was too much. “The problem,” Esraa said as we drove back to Cairo in a taxi, “is that for a small group of people, it will never be enough. January 25 was about bread, dignity, social justice. It then became about Mubarak leaving. It then became about him being put on trial. Now, they want him executed.” A young local journalist in the car with us nodded in agreement. “I feel we are taking it too far,” she said. Up until then, the image of the revolution as projected to the world had been dignified, but this sort of public humiliation seemed at odds with the New Egypt they had envisaged.
The Mubarak trial could go on for years, long past the lifetime of the fallen president himself. A new treason law is being drafted, which if implemented could implicate even low-ranking agents of the regime. But it is unlikely that a fair trial can be held—not because the court and judge don’t want it, but because of a bureaucratic system that lacks transparency, in which orders have often been verbal, in which procedures are often ad hoc or arbitrary. Two of the former Interior Minister’s aides, for example, have been released on bail, and one remains in a senior government position. In the courtroom yesterday, when the case of the former Minister of Interior re-adjourned, the judge opened boxes of evidence: guns, bloodied clothes, tear-gas canisters, all held in empty cartons of 600ml Danon water bottles. “We’re not equipped for a trial like this,” a judge outside the courtroom told me. “It’s impossible to get the necessary evidence and documentation—whether pro or against Mubarak.” The question of whether tangible evidence against Mubarak exists looms large.
The Mubarak trial may ultimately be less important at this point than what happens as Egyptians seek to rebuild the country. While a small group of activists continue to use their media platforms to protest loudly, the liberal opposition parties have finally this week begun to speak of forming a coalition and preparing for elections—largely in response to the show of strength by Islamists last Friday. The Islamist parties and movements continue to move ahead, furthering their outreach programs and campaigns for support. Activists like Esraa are joining parties, holding workshops, working to raise political awareness beyond the limited bounds of Cairo. With the image of Mubarak in a criminal court seared in their minds, many more people say they are now ready to move on with preparing for elections.
The military itself has made it clear that it will no longer tolerate the continued occupation of the Square, nor other such disruptions. On Friday, August 5, hundreds of soldiers and military police had been deployed downtown to prevent further attempts at sit-ins or protests in the square. Having been forced, whether in an orchestrated act or real surrender, to put Mubarak on trial, their message is now clear: although the ruling military council’s desire to consolidate the military’s interests and maintain the status quo is little disputed, they also want the country to return to stability. Putting Mubarak on trial was the real test of their willingness to appease the protest movement and move onward toward elections.
On August 15, the Mubarak trial will resume at the Police Academy, which, perhaps fittingly, was planned as the last stop on the Cairo Metro when it was to be completed in 2020. “Mubarak Police Academy,” the station would have been called. It is, perhaps, this latest image of their fallen leader, despondent and depleted as he listens to the charges against him, that will finally mark a turning point in a revolution that seemed to have stalled.
August 8, 2011, 2:15 p.m.