Thursday, 4 August 2011

Mubarak on Trial: Reading the Color-Coded Prison Garb

Schadenfreude has had a field day the past couple of weeks. First it was ‘the humblest day of my life’ for Rupert Murdoch, before whose power prime ministers groveled, Scotland Yard bowed and trade unions shattered. But that was closer to comedy than tragedy, with farcical relief in the form of a cream-pie attack.

Hosni Mubarak on trial is the real Greek tragedy. True to form, the anti-hero’s fatal flow was the stubbornness with which he clung to power, long after it should have been clear that the option of a graceful exit was evaporating, long after the violence he unleashed on peaceful demonstrators annulled any residual goodwill left toward him in the hearts of a sentimental people. Egyptians instinctively respect age and status, and inchoately associate national dignity with that of the ruler, even a tyrant. In spite of the hundreds of dead demonstrators, the revolutionaries had been more than ready to see him leave Egypt for some cushy exile. The chants in Tahrir went: “Leave, leave. O Mubarak, the plane to Saudi Arabia is waiting for you.”

He should have left; he would not be standing in the dock today. Perhaps his capacity for self-delusion, or the ambition of his sons, convinced him that there could be a potential second act for the Mubarak dynasty if they stayed on Egyptian soil. Perhaps he hoped that Sharm-el-Sheikh would be his Elba, not his St Helena. But as rumors of repeated attempts at counter-revolution struck time and again in the months after the Friday of Departure, the Mubarak faction was suspected of plotting in exile. As accountability for the stark abuses of the regime became the rallying cry of the revolutionaries, it was inevitable that the day would come when the man who wielded the ultimate power should be put on trial.

The sight of an old man lying on a stretcher behind the traditional Egyptian ‘cage of the accused’ while his good-looking sons hover over him solicitously, is enough to evoke reflexive sympathy in any observer. But then you remember that Mubarak felt no pity for others: that he remained unmoved before the horrific photos of the mangled, bloodied corpse of Khaled Said, tortured to death by Mubarak’s secret police for daring to criticize the regime in a blog; you remember that the president remained unmoved before a video recording of police officers torturing and sexually humiliating an innocent young man who fell into their hands at a routine traffic checkpoint. The criminal police officers incriminated in these and thousands of other cases were never held accountable; even when tried in response to public outcry, they were let off with a few weeks suspension before being re-instated in their posts. Mubarak made his police above the law, as long as they protected his regime and his dynastic ambitions. He had no pity for others, nor did he fear a day of reckoning.

No tyrant does. Which is why it is a salutary lesson for all tyrants, especially in the region, that their day of reckoning could come as well. Some argue the contrary, that the sight of Mubarak brought to justice could harden the resolve of a dictator like Qaddafi to cling to power till the bitter end. But that would be the wrong lesson to draw: Mubarak could have spared himself humiliation if he had agreed to leave the country when he had a chance. Nor is this a repeat of the macabre puppet theatre of Saddam Hussein’s public hanging under American auspices in an occupied Iraq. Hosni Mubarak is being brought to justice by his own people.

And there will be no hanging, public or otherwise. Watch the body language of the accused: Mubarak, his sons, reviled former police master El-Adly, as they glad-hand smiling, reassuring police and army officers outside the courthouse. The worst sentence Hosni Mubarak might receive will be to live out the rest of his days in a comfortable ‘prison’ hospital in Sharm-el-Sheikh. His sons are on trial for minor corruption only, not for the potentially more serious crimes of ordering the killing of peaceful civilian demonstrators.

Mubarak and his sons wear the white prison garb of the accused before trial, symbolically presumed innocent till proven guilty. If and when they are sentenced, they will exchange the white for dark blue. None of them will ever wear the red that purports capital punishment. And that is as it should be. This revolution should not bloody its hands.

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