A judge’s decision to throw out the charges against Mubarak for his role in the deaths of hundreds of protesters during the February 2011 Egyptian revolution was unsurprising, and President Sisi’s response was revealing – but it does not mean “the end of the Arab Spring.”
1. Mubarak was not actually ‘acquitted’, but it doesn’t really matter.
On Friday it was generally reported in the western media that Hosni Mubarak had been ‘acquitted’ in the trial brought over his role in the deaths of protesters during the 18 days of revolution in February 2011. This is not entirely correct, although he also has not been charged. As Egpytian website Mada Masr pointed out, the entire case was thrown out on procedural grounds by a judge, as Mubarak was added as a defendant after the case had already been referred to trial.
Although Mubarak was charged in a separate case brought against him in 2011 for corruption, embezzlement and the misuse of state funds for him and his family, as the case against him for the death of the protesters during the 18 days was thrown out, this other charge was also ‘backdated’ to the time of detention in 2011, so three-year sentence he was given for this separate charge has now been “served.”
This ‘back-dating’ of Mubarak’s corruption charges to the time he was jailed – and not the time he was sentenced – means he is now effectively ‘free to go’, his health problems aside. Despite the technicalities, it is, of course, an enormous betrayal to the hundreds who lost their lives on his orders and the young revolutionaries who sacrificed their lives to overthrow Mubarak’s corrupt and abusive regime in 2011.
2. Mubarak’s release is a sign of how Sisi’s regime is positioning itself.
After the removal of Mubarak from power in the February 2011 revolution, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) held power while elections were organised. The Islamist-backed Mohammad Morsi was elected in 2012, followed by a botched constitution-drafting process that alienated the supporters of the revolution and excluded non-Islamist voices.
Morsi effectively committed political suicide through his mishandling of the constitutional crisis and by granting himself wide-sweeping extra Presidential ‘powers’. A popular movement to remove him gained momentum, leading to the events of June-August 2013. Morsi was removed by the army “acting on behalf of” the popular Tamarod movement.
Up to 1,100 Morsi supporters who opposed his removal were massacred by the army on 14 and 15 August. A new constitution was drafted and new elections in which the military leader, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, ascended to power and proceeded to enact a series of draconian laws labeling the Muslim Brotherhood “terrorists” and effectively prohibiting public protest.
Sisi could have used the Mubarak case to distance himself from the former authoritarian leader, positioning himself as the true ‘inheritor’ of the 2011 revolution, who salvaged it from the ‘aberrant’ interregnum of Morsi’s shortlived rule. But Sisi seems instead to have made the calculation to align himself primarily against Morsi and the Muslim Brotherood. Morsi was put on trial after he was removed from power in the summer of 2013 for numerous charges, some of which carry the death sentence as a penalty.
It is important to note that serious human rights abuses were committed under Morsi’s short rule, and his botched constitution-drafting and constitutional crisis did alienate civil society and betray the demands of the original revolutionaries. However it is striking that the current regime is primarily focusing its energy on demonising Morsi and ‘stamping out’ the Muslim Brotherhood rather than positioning itself as against Mubarak. This sends as a message of “back to business as usual” in which the old regime is allowed to return under the wing of Sisi’s current authoritarian rule.
3. The Egyptian judiciary is corrupt.
Despite some important institutional safeguards, in practice judiciary in Egypt has often been entwined with and dependent on the executive, which in turn has long been intertwined with the Egyptian military, which in turn occupies a particular role in Egyptian public and political life forged by Nasser in the immediately post-revolutionary period. The atrophy of Egypt’s judiciary under Mubarak – although combined with increasing moves towards independence by some senior judges – was one of the underlying reasons for widespread alienation with Mubarak that gave birth to the 2011 February revolution.
Transparency International’s recent annual Corruption Perception Index showed that the judiciary is widely regarded as corrupt by Egyptians. In the years since the revolution, there has not been adequate lustration or an attempt to establish rule of law and separation of the branches of government.
4. The judiciary hasn’t been so kind to the revolutionaries and Islamists.
While the Egyptian judicial system has just let Mubarak go free despite his decades of state kleptocracy, massive embezzlement, violation of rule of law and involvement in the deaths of hundreds of activists, the courts have not treated the revolutionaries themselves with the same leniency.
Since Sisi’s ascendancy after the 2013 military-overthrow of Morsi, the judiciary has been politically deployed primarily against Islamists supporting (or seen to support) Morsi, who have been sentenced to death in their hundreds in mass trials that have not followed proper judicial procedures. But even as Sisi utilises the judiciary primarily to persecute Islamists, secular activists have also been targetted as Sisi deploys all the powers of the state to quash any dissent.
Leaders of the ‘April 6th Youth Movement’ have been arrested in the last year, and behind the high profile Al Jazeera trial and the miscarriage of justice it enacted, dozens of Egyptian journalists have been imprisoned and denied the right to a fair trial. When the news of Mubarak’s release emerged, the joke circulated on Twitter that “if you really want Mubarak to be imprisoned, spread the rumour that he is secretly a journalist.”
The use of military courts to try civilians has been one of the most alarming threads running through the revolutionary and post-revolutionary period, from the 2011 SCAF era to Morsi’s rule to Sisi’s current regime. More civilians were tried in military courts in the last three years than under Mubarak’s rule, and both the 2012 constitution and the post-Morsi constitution built in provisions to allow their continued use.
5. Don’t expect much response from America over Mubarak’s release.
The Obama administration was loath to use the word ‘coup‘ last year to describe the military-backed overthrow of Morsi, and it has walked a tightrope since – the dominant theme of America’s behaviour being how Egypt has let down the young activists of 2011 who demanded the ‘democracy’ America claims to promote.
Although in the last year America did cut military aid to Egypt in response to Sisi’s repression and violence against Islamists, journalists and secular human rights activists, the threat that Egypt would make a “strategic alliance” away from America and towards states in the region eager to support Sisi’s moves against the Muslim Brotherhood has made the Obama administration less willing to criticize Sisi’s policies. Moreover, as the Obama administration fears the spread of the ISIS it is keen to strengthen its relationship with Egypt – if Sisi has no problem with Mubarak being released, then expect little from Obama.
6. This doesn’t mean “the Arab Spring is over” – it’s more complicated than that.
Pronouncements that the Arab Spring is ‘over‘ come regularly in the Egyptian and western media, but even aside from the fact that ‘Arab Spring’ has come to be seen as a fraught phrase for framing the revolutions and social movements of 2011, this declaration is premature.
The rejection of Mubarak’s corrupt authoritarianism and the cry for “bread, freedom and justice” still stands and has irreversibly changed Egypt, and activists continue to struggle for “neither Morsi nor Sisi” but instead a socially just state that reflects the aims of the revolution.
What unfolded with Morsi’s human rights abuses, mishandling of the 2012 constitution, and his removal power (accompanied by the Raba’a massacre) leading to the ascendancy of Sisi can be characterised as a hijacking of the revolution in two stages: a ‘counter-revolution’ of sorts, in which Sisi pits his power predominantly against Islamists whilst wielding an authoritarian grip on the country that also quashes secular dissent and the leaders of the revolution such as the April 6th Youth Movement.
It is true that almost four years of economic instability and political violence have made many Egyptians weary of further unrest, but this is a live struggle between entrenched power and civil society. The campaign to retry Mubarak has already begun, and the resistance against Sisi’s authoritarianism continues despite the draconian ‘protest law’ and clampdown on civil society. This is not over.