Justice vs. Revenge: The Disappointing Injustice of Hosni Mubarak's Trial

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The now-imprisoned Egyptian president could be on his way to being cleared of charges.

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Former Egyptian President Mubarak sits inside a cage in a courtroom in Cairo. (Reuters).

The verdicts in the trial of the Mubaraks, former Interior Minister Habeeb al Adly, and eleven senior Ministry of Interior officials came in on Saturday morning and like clockwork protesters are out in Tahrir Square again.  It's no surprise why.  The Ministry of Interior officials were acquitted as were Mubarak's sons, Gamal and Alaa.  The former president and al Adly were each given life sentences, but I'm told the acquittals of the others lay the legal groundwork for Mubarak and al Adly to be cleared on appeal.  Justice was not served.

Yet justice was probably too much to expect under Egypt's present circumstances.  Egypt has not had a revolution.  The political system has not been overthrown and replaced; only the head of state has been deposed along with a select number of courtiers.  As a result,  Mubarak was tried under the rigged and unstable legal system that served the interests of the leaders and defenders--i.e., Mubarak and his associates--of the regime that came into being into the 1950s.  Despite dramatically condemning Mubarak at the sentencing, the presiding judge, Ahmed Refaat, was known to be sympathetic to the former president to whom he owed his position and stature.  It was thus not hard to imagine that punishments handed down to Mubarak and his fellow defendants would be something considerably less than what many Egyptians wanted or expected.

Why, then, have a trial?  Egyptians were demanding revenge and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, concerned about restoring stability, gave the people a trial that was thrilling theater--the former dictator in a cage, the families of martyrs outside the police academy where the trial was held, and the testimony broadcast live.  With all the unbelievable things that had happened in Egypt in the preceding months, vengeance potentially could have been served through the courts.  Perhaps, the thinking went, the revolutionaries and their shock troops--the ultras--could politicize the environment to the extent that Refaat and his two colleagues would have to order Mubarak put to death. If anyone believed Egyptians were more interested in justice than vengeance, David Kirkpatrick ably captures the post-verdict mood in Sunday's New York Times, including protesters who "brandished nooses to symbolize the sentence they sought." Kirkpatrick also related how the case was rushed last summer in order to "soothe protesters."

Over the weekend, I had a spirited debate on Twitter with my friend and colleague, Michael Hanna, from the Century Foundation and others over revenge vs. justice. To me the difference seems clear: Revenge is motivated by a desire to "get even" while justice is the adjudication of a complaint under accepted rules and norms and the subsequent assignment of blame and punishment.  The latter was never possible in transitional Egypt absent a new constitution, an independent judiciary, and an overhauled penal code.  As I wrote last summer a Truth and Reconciliation Commission would have been a better way for Egyptians to proceed.  It may not have satisfied Egyptians' desire for revenge, but sometimes compromise is necessary for the greater good.  Getting to the bottom of the crimes committed under Mubarak through such a commission might have closed off the possibility of Mubarak's execution, but it also might have provided a stronger basis for building a just political order.

Having chosen a trial, Egyptians must now live with the consequences, which may include Mubarak's acquittal.  Justice and revenge denied.  Of all the ironies of post-Mubarak Egypt, this one may be the toughest to take.

This article originally appeared at CFR.org, an Atlantic partner site.

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Steven A. Cook is Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square. He blogs at From the Potomac to the Euphrates.

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