In a year of landmark accomplishments for the Middle East and North Africa, add one more: Egypt yesterday became the first Arab country to sentence its former leader to life imprisonment for crimes against his own people.
The image of Mubarak listening passively to a judge's order could not have contrasted more with the grainy footage of Iraq's Saddam Hussein being dragged to the gallows in December 2006, or Libya's Muammar Qaddafi being battered to death by his enemies last year. And while Tunisia convicted its former leader of graft, it did so in absentia. Due process, so elusive in many Arab legal systems, has been followed in Egypt. Justice has been served.
For the millions of Egyptians who suffered during three decades of authoritarian rule, the first emotion yesterday was unbridled joy. Celebratory gunfire erupted outside the courthouse and people danced in the streets. Who could blame them?
But within minutes of the verdict, euphoria was tinged with anger, underscoring the complexity of Egyptian emotions. Inside the courtroom there were token shouts of support; outside, activists vented their anger that Mubarak's former cronies were let off and acquitted. Mubarak sons Gamal and Alaa, as well as four Interior Ministry officials who carried out the orders to crush the demonstrations last year, were all acquitted. Habib El Adly, Mubarak's former interior minister, was the only other person sentenced, also to life.
To be sure, care must be taken not to judge the country's mood on the evidence of isolated demonstrations, but the coming days will no doubt be another test for Egypt as it further loosens the shackles of Mubarak's reign. Moreover, the appeals process is bound to rekindle resentment, and frustrations will continue to boil.
What impact yesterday's ruling will have on Egyptian presidential politics is another open question. The ruling may significantly shift support away from Mubarak's former prime minister Ahmed Shafiq, and towards the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi, in the upcoming presidential run-off this month.
And yet none of this should detract from the institutional and judicial progress being made. Transition from autocracy to democracy is proving to be difficult, but it is progressing. Fair parliamentary elections, the suspension of emergency law (which also came at the weekend) and now transparent judiciary trials are signs that Egyptians are, finally, turning the page.