x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Ideas about justice colour reactions to Mubarak sentence

Egyptians have learnt to say "no" but also that negation is no substitute for strategy.

Downtown Cairo was deserted on Saturday morning as televisions and radios blared the final moments of the trial of ex-president Hosni Mubarak, on charges of corruption and failure to stop the murder of unarmed protesters.

When the verdict was delivered - 25 years, tantamount to a life sentence for the 84-year old Mubarak and the former minister of the interior Habib Al Adly, 74 - the city centre started to come to life. Shops began to open. Everyone was talking about the trial.

A veiled woman whose family runs a snack kiosk was proud of the result. "We brought the president to justice," she said.

Her husband concurred. "It's never been done before. Egyptians are the first!" He was right: holding a consummate authority figure answerable to the public was unheard of and, for many, edifying.

A man buying a newspaper was relieved. "Khalas!" he said ("it's over"). But the bearded newspaper seller disagreed. "It's not enough," he said, meaning he had wished for a harsher sentence. "What do you want?" demanded his customer, and the two were suddenly shouting. I slipped away towards Tahrir Square.

Three men who operate a wardrobe-sized kiosk selling cut-rate clothing were chatting among themselves. Mubarak and Al Adly "will die in prison," one said, "and that's good". They thought most people would accept that, but said those who had lost relatives in the last year would remain "hot".

Under the searing sun in Tahrir Square a small group of agitated men stood before a TV camera hurling invective at Ahmed Rifaat, the judge who had just acquitted Mubarak's sons Alaa and Gamal, and six principal aides of Al Adly.

The area was deserted except for a ramshackle tent covered by a torn flag. Barefoot youngsters cavorted nearby.

Two unveiled 18-year-old girls stopped to chat, saying "They should have hanged him for all he took from us".

I spoke to some perfume-shop owners sitting beneath some of downtown's remaining trees, sipping tea. They too felt the verdict was unfair, but for different reasons. "These last 30 years weren't all bad," they said. "Mubarak built roads and bridges, even Sharm el-Sheikh, and our business used to be fine - now look at us!"

Tourism has virtually halted since last year and Egyptians of all backgrounds complain that the revolution has hurt their livelihoods.

"If you judge a man, you must judge him all, not just his mistakes," one of the perfume men affirmed.

"Mubarak was fine until he let his sons get the best of him" another said. "That was his wife's fault," the third chimed in.

As the morning progressed people absorbed the news. A middle-aged grocer said "Habib Al Adly's men deserved punishment for what they did" - killing protesters, he meant. "I don't care if they were following orders, they could have disobeyed".

The military authorities "are laughing at us" said a butcher who had hoped for a death sentence. "Just watch - they'll appeal. This isn't justice, it's a deal!"

Citizens who considered Mubarak's trial a revolutionary gain were dismayed by the acquittal of his sons and Al Adly's officials.

This, like the comfortable prison accommodations for regime cronies, has done little to mend the abysmal distrust that has long separated the people and the state.

But in a country where the rule of law has so long been denied and people have endured arbitrary punishment, the concept of justice varies with the individual's experience.

When a rubbish collector whose back is bent nearly double from a lifetime of loads said "I would tear Mubarak's flesh from his body, piece by piece" he echoed the fire and brimstone Friday sermons that warn of the tortures of hell.

However, most Egyptians would baulk at the thought of execution. In a deeply patriarchal society, Mubarak's humiliation is somehow their own.

His forced resignation last year was as much a personal as a political matter, since he had come to embody all that Egyptians despised in their poorly-run state.

Likewise, reactions to his condemnation reflect both personal and national standards of justice and humanity, how people see themselves and wish to be seen.

Throughout Saturday, protesters marched to the square shouting "Revolution!" and "Down with Hosni Mubarak".

By evening Tahrir was full and peaceful and characteristically carnivalesque. People brought their children; vendors sold soft drinks and snacks.

One of the two candidates in the mid-June run-off presidential election, Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, issued a statement evoking the "blood of the martyrs," encouraging the protesters.

He later accused his opponent, former Mubarak cabinet member Ahmed Shafiq, of colluding to withhold damning trial evidence.

Some Egyptians think that this Brotherhood politicking could incite fresh unrest that would only translate into votes for Mr Shafiq, whose campaign slogan consists of a single word: security.

But the loudest voice belongs to a silent majority that is tired of upheavals lacking specific, viable goals, and thus the possibility of success. Egyptians have learnt to say "no" but also that negation is no substitute for strategy.

On Cairo's streets there is the sinking sense that whatever people do or don't do now, they will be playing into the strategists' hands.


Maria Golia is the Cairo-based author of Cairo, City of Sand and Photography and Egypt