Jacob Heilbrunn

Don't Kill Hosni Mubarak

 Egypt is making a mistake. The Wall Street Journal reports that former President Hosni Mubarak and his two sons, Alaa and Gamal, are about to be put on trial. The charges are "intentional murder, attempted murder of demonstrators, abuse of power to intentionally waste public funds and unlawfully profiting from public funds for them and for others." Are they guilty? Most likely, at least in the sense of presiding over an authoritarian state, which is by no means the most repressive in the Middle East, let alone the rest of the world (Robert Mugabe, anyone?). If you set the standard as high as a western democracy and ignore the context in which Mubarak himself was operating, then you can turn Mubarak into Exhibit A of everything that is wrong with Egypt.

And Mubarak did much that was wrong. His depature is a good thing. But threatening him with the death penalty doesn't make a lot of sense. You can't pin everything and anything that was wrong with Egypt on him. That's way too simplistic. The problems, the general rot go deeper, much deeper. Maybe Egyptians need the kind of reconciliation process, the truth commissions, that South Africa experienced.

The fact is that Egypt wasn't a democracy when Mubarak rose to power in the wake of the Muslim Brotherhood's assassination of Anwar Sadat. Sadat was executed because he had the temerity to sign a peace deal with Israel. In return he got the Sinai back. But that didn't placate Muslim radicals. Mubarak, a former Air Force officer, was a bit of a dud in comparison to Sadat. But Egypt was fairly quiescent under his rule. It violated human rights. It was corrupt. But by Arab standards, it was hardly the worst of regimes. Already, as crime rises in Egypt, there appears to be mounting nostalgia for the Mubarak days:


“The old days were better,” said Sabeen Mursi, 30, sitting in front of a wooden cart of fruit and vegetables that attracted few customers. “Even though there was no money, people would take care of each other. We would all find something to eat at the end of the day. Today, no one cares about one another.”

That sense of malaise is spreading throughout the country, even to supporters of the revolution in Cairo. And as similar uprisings in other autocratic states in the region flail, Egypt’s experience may serve as a cautionary tale.


Anyway, Mubarak himself came across as a figurehead rather than the true leader of Egypt. When I saw him at Blair House several years ago, he came across as out of it. His numerous, suave aides were running the show.

No doubt Mubarak plundered Egypt for what he could financially. His sons should be punished if they were engaged in looting the public treasury. But to put Mubarak on trial with a possible death penalty makes little sense. What would it accomplish? For one thing it would stir up enmity among the rear-guard who backed Mubarak. Egypt should be looking forward, not backwards. For another it's going to vastly complicate efforts to get other authoritarian leaders in the region and elsewhere to step down. It's the political equivalent of unconditional surrender: you put your foe's back to the wall and he's going to have every incentive to fight to the finish.

As the Journal points out,


For the U.S., the spectacle of a trial could prove embarrassing and will likely complicate its diplomatic efforts in the region. Mr. Mubarak was for decades one of America's staunchest allies in the Arab world and a leading recipient of U.S. aid. Prosecution of an Arab leader who agreed to step down and hand over power is likely to undermine U.S. efforts to persuade other Arab leaders to give up power peacefully.


Perhaps the possibility of a trial is simply a sop to a restive public that the Egyptian military is trying to placate. Youthful protesters are aiming for a so-called second revolution to try and bring about a minimum wage and other reforms. But the trouble may be Egypt itself, a backward country whose revolution has raised expectations that can't be fulfilled. Putting Mubarak on trial is unlikely to help realize them, either.