Paul Pillar

In Bed and in a Cage

Surely one of the most arresting images to come out of the Arab Spring is that of deposed Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, prone on a hospital bed inside the defendant's cage in a courtroom where he is standing—or maybe it's lying—trial for abuses allegedly committed as his power was coming to an end. I have always thought the cage that is used in some countries to confine defendants in courtrooms adds a significant degree of humiliation and degradation, well beyond anything to which defendants in American courtrooms, seated openly at a defense table next to their attorneys, are subjected. The message seems to be either that the charged person is equivalent to a wild animal or that the physical arrangement in the courtroom symbolizes the imprisonment that a presumed guilty person has coming to him. Europeans criticized the perp walk to which Dominique Strauss-Kahn was subjected. That treatment of an accused person seems mild compared to what the man in the cage—who also supposedly is not to be considered guilty before a verdict is rendered—is subjected.

The trial of Mubarak, along with family members and associates, will no doubt be an attention-hogging spectacle in the weeks ahead. Among other interesting dimensions is the question of how much Mubarak and his lawyers will be able to associate the former president and his actions with the generals who are currently running the show in Egypt.

But the humiliation already inflicted on Mubarak raises other questions about messages to be sent and behavior to be influenced, and raises them in a way in which the interests of Egyptians may conflict with those of their brother Arabs. One man on the street in Cairo justified the trial in such behavior-influencing terms, not as something being done for either justice or vengeance. “The only reason we want to try him — the sole reason — is so that he can serve as an example for the person who follows him,” he said. “There is a limit to power.” The prospect of such treatment, however, can only reduce any incentive rulers in other Arab states might otherwise have to step down in response to popular pressure.

Take your pick: influencing the decisions of future rulers in Egypt or of current ones elsewhere.