x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Care needed so Mubarak trial is more than show

Mubarak behind bars was a striking image, but the trial has to achieve more than a symbolic victory or a settling of scores.

It was the moment for which so many Egyptians had waited: Hosni Mubarak in the dock. But when Mr Mubarak appeared before the court yesterday - the first Arab leader to face trial in person since the Arab uprisings - he appeared a changed man, lying on a trolley and shielding his face for part of the time. This trial will be watched closely, and not just because of justice for the Mubaraks.

The historic trial began amid chaotic scenes inside the courtroom, while unruly protesters were met by police baton-charges outside. One by one, Mr Mubarak, his two sons and other defendants denied all charges against them, ranging from the unlawful killing of protesters to corruption and illegal gas deals with Israel. Next to the Mubaraks, former interior minister Habib El Adly, the former head of the hated Mukhabarat, looked on in apparent fear.

Some believe Mr Mubarak's illness was being overplayed to elicit sympathy. Certainly it is no accident that this trial began on the third day of Ramadan, when Muslims are asked to show forgiveness and empathy.

Egypt's ruling military council is clearly aware of the political implications. Justice for the Mubaraks has been a key demand of protests that continue to roil Cairo. For members of the interim government, many of whom are former Mubarak loyalists, this trial is another opportunity to distance themselves from the deposed regime.

Comparisons are unavoidable with the trial of Saddam Hussein - the only other Arab leader to face a courtroom in recent memory. That trial showed how a lynch mob could badly subvert justice.

Mr Mubarak's trial will do more harm than good if it degenerates into political theatre. The former president's appearance in court marks another landmark of the Arab Spring: accountability. Egypt's judiciary has a chance, an obligation even, to make sure that justice is served for both the Mubaraks and for Egyptians. Yesterday's grandstanding and muddled proceedings did not inspire confidence; Mr Mubarak's lawyer requested that a preposterous 1,631 witnesses be called.

This court case, and its eventual verdict, will have a significant bearing on the continuing unrest in other Arab countries. Already autocrats will be looking at this trial - and those of Tunisia's Zine El Abedine Ben Ali's trials in absentia - as a gauge of their own futures. Some will also probably still be weighing the "Qaddafi option" when faced with unrest.

It is far too early to predict how this drama will be resolved. What is sure is that more is at stake than the future of one old man on a hospital stretcher.