A dictator on trial

August 12, 2011

Lottie Monson reports on the trial of toppled dictator Hosni Mubarak--and what it says about the ongoing revolutionary struggle gripping Egypt today.

SINCE THE beginning of August, Egyptians have been treated to the stunning image of Hosni Mubarak and his two sons in the defendant's cage, on trial for corruption and complicity in attacks on demonstrators during the revolution in January and February that brought about Mubarak's downfall.

Finally underway now, the trial has produced reactions of jubilation, shock and uncertainty from Egyptians--and sent a message to the remaining autocratic governments of the Arab world that they can be held accountable for their crimes.

The trial, which began with an opening session on August 3, would have been unimaginable little more than half a year ago. Even after the revolution, many people thought it would be postponed indefinitely--the day before, reports of Mubarak's failing health led to speculation that he wouldn't appear in court.

But the next day, when the proceedings started at 10 a.m.--with revolutionary activists and pro-Mubarak demonstrators clashing outside the court building--Mubarak was there, lying in a hospital bed in the white uniform of prisoners, with his two sons standing next to him. He was formally charged and denied his guilt in the second hour. In an adjoining cage sat other figures from the Mubarak regime, including the despised Interior Minister Habib el-Adly.

Former dictator Hosni Mubarak in the defendants' cage at the start of his trial
Former dictator Hosni Mubarak in the defendants' cage at the start of his trial

"There are tears of joy at the sight of Hosni Mubarak behind bars," the mother of one of the martyrs of the revolution told a reporter. The image of Mubarak in the courtroom has been replayed over and over in the Egyptian media.

Mubarak's trial was adjourned to Monday, August 15, when a long list of witnesses and vast amounts of documents will be introduced.

In an intriguing turn of events, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which has ruled Egypt since Mubarak resigned, will likely be called to testify. Many Egyptians recognize that the Supreme Council has cynical motives in putting the man they all once obeyed on trial, but Tantawi's presence could draw attention to the fact that leading figures from the old regime are still in power as part of the Council.

There is tremendous satisfaction that Mubarak is finally on trial, of course. "Any pharaoh or unjust leader has to face the consequences of his actions, history says so," one Cairo resident, Karima el-Hefnawy, told the New York Times. "Unfortunately, rulers didn't learn that lesson. Every oppressor thinks that no one will hold him accountable."

Nevertheless, there are questions about what is taking place voiced by some of those who organized to see this day. For one, Mubarak is facing charges of conspiring to attack demonstrators during the revolution in January and February--the countless crimes and human rights violations committed during his 30-year regime haven't been addressed. And while Mubarak himself has been removed, the judiciary and legal apparatus of his regime remains mostly intact.

As Bahey eldin Hassan, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, told the Christian Science Monitor:

The police who are collecting evidence were appointed by Mubarak. The prosecution was fully a part of state security and was involved in settling accounts with Mubarak opponents. Some judges complain that the files sent to them are almost empty...and most of these people are on trial just because of what they did in five days. But what about 30 years? What about 30 years of oppression, torture, disappearances, killing by torture? What about that?"

THE FACT that the trial was not postponed is probably to the credit of the intensified wave of demonstrations and strikes that began in July, including renewed occupations in Cairo's Tahrir Square and cities across Egypt.

But this victory for the revolution has to be counted with others against examples of repression and violence coming from the Supreme Council--as it attempts to balance between the demands of the masses of Egyptians and its desire to impose order.

Two days before the start of the Mubarak trial, military and central security troops forcibly cleared the Tahrir Square occupation, arresting at least 111 demonstrators. Peaceful protesters were beaten, choked and threatened with maiming, and multiple reports of torture while in security custody were collected by the El Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence.

Unexpectedly, all 111 detainees were released the next day, and all charges dropped. However, the military and security forces continued to occupy the square, preventing demonstrators from reestablishing the occupation.

On Friday, August 5, dozens of activists gathered in front of the Omar Makram Mosque, on the edge of Tahrir Square, for Iftar, the evening meal to break the fast of Ramadan. As activists were preparing to leave after sharing their meal, security forces violently dispersed them with Tasers and rubber bullets. Several activists were hospitalized with injuries from vicious beatings.

Another victim of state-supported violence, protester Mohamed Mohsen, died on August 3 from injuries sustained during a July 23 march to the headquarters of the Supreme Council.

As SocialistWorker.org reported, the peaceful protest march was hemmed in by lines of soldiers and military vehicles on one side, and and thugs throwing bricks, rocks and Molotov cocktails on all others. It's widely believed that the thugs were encouraged or paid by military and security forces to attack the march in an attempt to intimidate demonstrators and create a demand for the return of the police, who have been conspicuously absent from the streets of Cairo since the beginning of the revolution in January.

After sustaining a life-threatening injury to the head, Mohsen's medical care was delayed--he was sent to five different hospitals before being admitted for treatment. Due to pressure from protesters, Minister of Health Amr Helmy opened an official investigation, accusing the hospitals involved of criminal negligence in the incident.

THESE ARE examples of attempts by the Supreme Council and its supporters to break the spirit of the revolution and reestablish the authority of the Mubarak regime, with some of its hated figureheads gone. But at the same time, Egypt's military rulers have continued to have to make concessions to the demands of the millions who brought down the dictator.

On August 11, for example, the government announced it would lift the hated emergency law that sanctioned Mubarak's use of drastic repression--sometime in the months before coming parliamentary elections, according to a spokesperson. No date has been set for the election, and the government is reportedly planning other laws as a "replacement." But overturning the emergency law was one of the most important demands of the movement after Mubarak's fall.

The week before, there was an unqualified triumph for the struggle that was little noted in the English language media. On August 4, Prime Minister Essam Sharaf issued an executive order to dissolve the state-controlled Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF), and Minister of Manpower Ahmed El-Borai demanded that the ETUF's assets be frozen by the Central Bank of Egypt.

Since its establishment in 1957, the ETUF functioned essentially as an arm of the state, and the current executive committee is populated with Mubarak supporters and members of the dictator's National Democratic Party.

However, an independent trade union movement, based in the labor struggles of the past decade, has been gathering strength since the establishment of the independent union for tax collectors in 2008. In March, workers and labor activists launched the first independent trade union federation, creating an alternative to the moribund ETUF. While there were only three independent unions at the time of the January revolution, more than 90 have been established, according to Hossam el-Hamalawy, a journalist and blogger at 3arabawy.org.

Even more startling is an August 9 report on the website of the daily newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm that El-Borai has presented a draft bill for a law that would wide trade union freedoms. The text of the bill reportedly not only abolishes the Trade Union Act No. 35 of 1976, which prohibited labor organization outside of government-sanctioned channels, but would extend union rights to civilian workers in the police and military.

The final shape of the bill--and whether it is passed into law--remains to be seen, but these developments certainly signal the increasing power of the labor movement and herald more revolutionary possibilities ahead.

More protests will be taking place in the coming weeks. One important one is a mass rally originally called for August 12 by Sufi Islamic groups has been rescheduled for a week later, Friday, August 19--most likely due to the continued presence of troops and security forces in Tahrir Square. The call was issued in coordination with liberal and left organizations such as the April 6 Movement, Egyptian Social Democratic Party, National Association for Change and the Tagammu Party.

The Sufi groups are organizing in response to the July 29 mass demonstrations of Islamists, including the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists, in Cairo and Alexandria, which supported the rule of the Supreme Council--clear evidence that the military has won significant groups that participated in the struggle against Mubarak. On August 12, several of the sponsoring groups have coordinated their participation in the rally as a call for the right to peaceful protest, and a demonstration against military and police violence.

The Supreme Council and the government are obviously treading a fine line. They have granted an unprecedented number of concessions--the trial of Mubarak and the dissolution of the ETUF are prominent among them.

But they are also determined to preserve key elements of the existing regime, even if they have to sacrifice figureheads like Mubarak to do so. As the self-proclaimed "guardians of the revolution," the interim government has kept a barely held rein on the use of force against political dissent, but the military and security forces have shrugged off this leash in in confrontations with protesters.

The revolutionary forces of the people and the counterrevolutionary forces of the military and old regime are still locked in a struggle--and gains have come only as a result of the heroic and unceasing pressure from thousands of activists, organizers and everyday Egyptians who have demonstrated, occupied and gone on strike.

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