Mubarak's Trial Is a Sign of What's to Come for Egyptian Democracy

Seven months after he was deposed, the former president is held accountable for his rule in a court case slated to start Wednesday

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An Egyptian man walks past a defaced giant statue of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak / Reuters

Hosni Mubarak liked to imply that he united otherwise ungovernable Egyptians under his rule by sheer force of will. As he makes his debut in the defendant's cage on Wednesday (a barbaric if quite photogenic tradition of the Egyptian justice system), he is bringing together a fractious coalition of Egyptians but not in the manner he intended: baying for his blood.

The most important question, though, isn't whether Mubarak pays for his past deeds with his life, but how he pays, and for which of his regime's alleged misdeeds.

A surprising number of people across the spectrum of class and political persuasion told me they'd like to see the dirtiest laundry of Mubarak's reign aired at trial, followed by a cathartic public execution.

The Democracy Report"I want him to hang in Tahrir Square," a car parts dealer in the Cairo neighborhood of Boulaq told me, adding something blush-worthy about what he'd do to Mubarak if he could get his hands on the former president, which ended with the phrase "I'd make him my bride."

With more sophisticated language, the revolutionary groups that until recently occupied Tahrir Square have made justice for Mubarak a central demand. Even the military presently ruling Egypt seems to have decided to cast its former chief to the wolves. The judiciary, some of whose key members owe their positions to Mubarak, have expediently and belatedly lent their support to a quick, public trial, perhaps realizing it is the key to their own future viability.

Families of martyrs circulate Tahrir Square demanding an accounting of their missing relatives, like Sayed Goma, 52, who has carried a portrait of his missing teenage son around his neck for the last six months. Nearly crazed with grief, Goma has quit his job as a driver, and talks incessantly of vengeance. "I want them all to go to hell," he says of Mubarak and his entire ruling apparatus.

But this most unifying demand - that Mubarak be tried for the deaths of 846 or more Egyptians during the uprising that began on January 25 - avoids a reckoning of three decades of complex, nefarious and corrupt authoritarian misrule. A thorough accounting of the Mubarak era would require investigations and likely prosecutions for rampant torture, extrajudicial detention, manipulation of elections, state-sanctioned distortion, blackmail and infiltration of civic institutions ranging from universities and labor unions to professional syndicates and religious organizations. Then there's the nearly ubiquitous corruption of economic life, in which the first-hand role of Mubarak's family and inner-circle would barely amount to a prologue.

A sound and thorough judicial inquiry into all these abuses might take years, and certainly would require a renaissance in Egypt's legal system, which still enjoys wide respect but has been tarnished by decades of crony appointments and arbitrary laws issued by Mubarak and regularly whitewashed by some quarters of the judiciary. It also would require the presumption of innocence for Mubarak, and at least the possibility of guilt for others, including senior military officers, currently enjoying full freedom.

How Mubarak is tried is just as important as what he is tried for. If the former president is charged only for the killing of demonstrators in 2011, or for the illegal enrichment of his nuclear family, the proceedings will tacitly condone the authoritarian system that Mubarak built and the excesses it promoted. Similarly, if the judicial process reeks of vengeance (or to the contrary, if it gives the former president a free pass), it will fail to pave the way toward a new standard of rule of law in Egypt.

Iraq aspired, and ultimately failed, to use Saddam Hussein's trial as a cornerstone for a new judicial order. Jurists there built a careful process, and intended to showcase the entire sad history of Saddam's era. In the end, though, Saddam was hooded in the middle of the night and hung after being convicted of just one of his crimes. Ultimately, Saddam's execution looked like sectarian revenge - henchmen of a Shia government, chanting Shia slogans, killed Saddam for massacring a Shia clan, indifferent to the crimes Saddam committed against other Iraqis. Lost was the chance to build a unifying national narrative.

Egypt is not Iraq and the parallel shouldn't be exaggerated. For all the corroding effects of Mubarak's rule, Egypt's judicial system and state institutions have retained more of their structure and credibility than their Iraqi counterparts under Saddam. There are plenty of judges and military officers and government bureaucrats in Egypt who retain professional integrity and public legitimacy.

Still, the content and duration of Mubarak's trial will be a sign of what's to come in Egypt. If the trial that begins tomorrow leads to a comprehensive airing of Mubarak's sordid, authoritarian legacy, then Egypt has much to hope for. If, on the other hand, we see a perfunctory inquest and speedy, shallow trial (or even worse, a trial that seems designed to avoid the darker legacy of Mubarak's rule), then we can expect Egypt's next chapter to be sadly continuous with its last one.