Battle for the soul of Egypt

2012-06-09 09:45

Mubarak convicted and jailed, but military ruling edifice remains in place

The conviction and life imprisonment sentences

handed down on Saturday to former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and former

interior minister Habib Adli mark a profound but imprecise turning point in the

most important battle that has defined the Arab world for

the past two generations, and the past 60 years of uninterrupted military rule

in Egypt: the contest between whether the Arab people

will be ruled by democratically legitimate civilian authorities, or by

self-imposed and self-perpetuating military rulers.

The convictions are profound because they symbolically mark a

victory by those tens of millions of Egyptians – and by extension, several

hundred million other Arabs – who have overthrown four regimes and seriously

challenged two others in the past 18 months, demanding that their dictatorial

rulers be held accountable for their brutality, corruption and abuse of power.

The demonstrators who braved dangers and often died finally

achieved their most important symbolic goal, which is to put on trial, convict

and jail for life Mubarak and Adli.

They are the most important symbols of

thousands of other incumbent officials who brutalised and demeaned the Egyptian

people for decades.

They also personify a system of military rule that enriched

a small circle of insiders, while relegating the rest of the 80 million

Egyptians to a long and degrading cycle of poverty, mediocrity and


In the last 30 years of Mubarak rule, a once proud and productive

Egyptian people and nation had been pummelled by its own authoritarian military

rulers into a wreck and a laughing stock.

Trying, convicting and jailing these

two men for life, in an indigenous Egyptian court, was probably the most

widespread and deeply felt desire among the Egyptian people in the past 18


It sent the message that those who abuse and degrade their own people

will one day be held accountable, and that public opinion in the Arab world

matters again.

On another level, however, this court case is also imprecise in its

full meaning, both because of technical flaws and some powerful underlying

political messages.

The technical flaws relate to widespread scepticism about

how the two senior leaders could be convicted for the deaths of hundreds of

demonstrators while six senior police and security officers who were in charge

of operational commands were found innocent and released.

This captures the underlying political message that many fear is

inherent in the Saturday verdicts: that the Egyptian security state will

sacrifice one or two senior officials to placate popular anger, while preserving

control of real power in the country by a web of military, police and

intelligence agencies.

This issue becomes all the more significant because of the timing

of the verdicts – two weeks before the runoff presidential election and the

planned handover of power to civilian authorities by the Supreme Council of the

Armed Forces (SCAF) that has governed Egypt since

Mubarak’s overthrow in February 2011.

One of the two presidential candidates,

Ahmad Shafiq, a former air force commander and the last prime minister under

Mubarak, represents the attempt by the military-backed old guard to retain power

and effectively nullify the gains of the revolution.

Today’s court verdict

increases fears among many Egyptians that the SCAF is shielding the operational

core of the deep security state from public scrutiny and accountability, and

will also work with the existing massive bureaucracy and the many security

agencies to engineer a Shafiq victory over the Muslim Brotherhood candidate,

Mohammad Mursi.

Critics of the SCAF point out, for example, that the former Mubarak

government used biased military courts to try 2 000 critics over 30 years, while

the SCAF has used the same military courts to try over 12 000 Egyptians in the

past year and a half, according to estimates by human rights organisations that

monitor this issue.

This is why the court verdict, while satisfying the popular need

for justice and retribution against former dictators, only intensifies concerns

throughout Egypt and the Arab world about whether our

region can ever get rid of military rulers, and enjoy true civilian democratic


This remains the central battle of the Arab world


It plays itself out in different forms across the region, in countries

such as Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain and


Two aging military rulers were convicted and jailed in Cairo this

week, but the military ruling edifice remains largely in place.

Hundreds of

generals and colonels still contest and negotiate power with the new civilian

authorities who are trying to find their footing in a country that itself is

still in the early stages of redefining itself, and deciding if its government

will be managed by elected civilians or more ageing generals and colonels.

The great battle for the soul and identity of Egypt and the Arab

world continues.

» Khouri is editor at large of The Daily Star and

director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International

Affairs at the American University of Beirut in Lebanon

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