In Egypt, a pharaoh falls and the mameluks march on
When it opened last year, the trial of Hosni Mubarak, his sons and senior figures of his regime was dubbed "the trial of the century". Viewers in the region and beyond sat transfixed as the first post-Arab Spring leader to be personally judged for his crimes took the stand. Soon after, the television transmission stopped as some of other senior regime officials - the ones who were still running the country - testified.
Within a few days, the trial had degenerated into a farce.
Outside the courtroom the scene was chaotic, pitting families of those killed during the 2011 uprising against die-hard Mubarak supporters. Inside the courtroom, things were little better, with lawyers on both sides outdoing each other in empty grandiloquence. What should have been a transformational moment became a circus.
The verdict that was finally delivered on Saturday reflects the competing concerns at stake in the trial. On the one hand, those figures convicted - Mubarak himself, his interior minister Habib El Adly - were sentenced to life in prison. Many may be clamouring for the death sentence, but considering Egypt has seldom implemented capital punishment in recent years, this was always unlikely.
Mubarak's sons, also villains in this great drama, were let off this time because the incompetent prosecution filed a case against them in which the crimes predate the statute of limitations. But they have recently been charged in another, more recent, affair involving insider trading. That this new case came up only days before the verdict, and in the midst of a divisive election, only confirms suspicions of a politically calibrated outcome to the trial.
On the other hand, even though El Adly was convicted for his role in ordering the deadly suppression of protests in January 2011, none of his key lieutenants were. It is a mystery how Ahmed Ramzy, the head of the Central Security Forces (the riot police) can be innocent when his troops were doing most of the fighting. Or how Hassan Abdel Rahman, the head of state security, had nothing to do with the chaos that was deliberately sown to scare the population into supporting the regime.
It is as if the regime's figureheads were sacrificed to save the caste of security officials who still run the country - perhaps reassuring their many colleagues who remain in positions of influence that they are safe and that there will only be token accounting for past crimes.
Egypt may be mostly associated with its pharaonic past and god-kings, but in this case the appropriate historical analogy is more recent: a pharaoh is taking the fall for the military class, the mameluks.
These mameluks, the vast caste of officers and officials (uniformed or not) who continue to rule Egypt, have taken it upon themselves to redefine the revolution. This is taking place amid a larger battle in Egyptian society to define post-Mubarak Egypt.
The young revolutionaries who led the protests last year want, above all, a rupture with the past and to construct a more open society. The Islamists who were late backers of the uprising want to build a more just society by making both society and government more Islamic.
And the generals who now govern, for their part, are trying to redefine "revolution" as simply the removal of Mubarak and a handful of his cronies. As Ahmed Shafiq, the presidential candidate and former air force general who stands a good chance of being Egypt's next president allegedly put it last week: "The revolution is over."
For him it ended with the removal of Mubarak. For others, however, it has just begun.
The Mubarak trial has many procedural flaws, in part due to the judge's conduct and in part through the prosecution's incompetence. Because of this, it is not really over: appeals mean the saga could continue for months if not years.
More importantly, though, it also has fundamental problems. First of all it should not have been held under the ordinary criminal justice system, because the verdict is so politicised, but also because the trial, to be genuinely revolutionary, should have taken place in an exceptional, revolutionary tribunal or as part of a transitional justice process like South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. As one observer quipped, the Mubarak regime cannot try the Mubarak regime.
Second, the trial's scope was entirely limited to the 18 days of the uprising - ignoring that the grievances that fuelled that uprisings went way beyond the repression of protesters. This fits in with the narrative that the authorities want to promote: Mubarak and a few other bad apples have been removed, so can we all get on with our lives now?
The rejection of this attitude was clear after the verdict, when thousands took to Tahrir Square once again, and the squares of other Egyptian cities, in protest. Some, for sure, were merely disappointed that Mubarak did not get the death penalty. Many others want the old security figures to be punished too. But protests come and go. The generals now in charge have learnt to just let them be. Most citizens, outraged or not, will eventually want to get on with their lives.
It is not a strategy of protests that will salvage this nearly extinguished revolution, it is political leadership.
Current and former presidential candidates (except Mr Shafiq) rushed to Tahrir and were cheered by the crowds, but have yet to clearly articulate how their idea of justice would be different. They speak of continuing the revolution, but have avoided clearly taking on the counter-revolutionaries.
Islamists and secularists fear each other more than they do the mameluks. As the Muslim Brotherhood seeks to unite Egyptians behind its candidate, Mohammed Morsi, perhaps it is not questions of religious identity that it should compromise on.
Rather, the bigger question about Egypt is whether it will continue to be ruled by and for the mameluks, or whether elected civilian politicians will have the opportunity to redefine their country, and with it what that revolution in the name of which everyone speaks actually means.
Issandr El Amrani is an independent journalist based in Cairo who blogs at www.arabist.net
Updated: June 4, 2012 04:00 AM