x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

To begin healing, Egypt should heed the lessons of Nelson Mandela

When human rights have been trampled on for decades, justice comes not just from court verdicts but from the sort of truth and reconciliation commissions established in South Africa after apartheid.

CAIRO // The historic trial of Hosni Mubarak was never going to heal the wounds of his 30-year rule over Egypt and the violent repression of protesters during last year's uprising.

The charges against him, his sons, a business tycoon and officials from the ministry of interior were far narrower than the crimes many Egyptians believe they had committed. Even more challenging was the investigation itself: how does a police force and prosecution team that once served Mubarak go about investigating his crimes?

Many crucial documents were destroyed during the uprising and no crime-scene investigators collected evidence where many young revolutionaries were killed.

When a country emerges from a dark era where human rights were trampled without accountability, it is not just verdicts that are needed to help it reconcile with its past.

What is needed is the truth. Many countries undergoing an important political transition have appointed special truth and reconciliation commissions in parallel to court proceedings to deal with this very problem.

Nelson Mandela established such a commission in South Africa after apartheid.

Justice is not only meted out through verdicts. It can also come through an exhaustive accounting of what happened, where and to whom.

Not included in the case that ended yesterday was Mubarak's legacy as president of Egypt, a period where corruption spread its tentacles across the economy and where the powerful state security apparatus regularly arrested political opposition members and held them without trial, and tortured those suspected of crimes.

It is possible that Ahmed Refaat, who was the head of a panel of three judges overseeing the case, realised this. The most cathartic moment of the hearing was his 15-minute speech before the sentencing, where he described the reign of Mubarak as "darkness that resembled a winter night" and lamented the state of poverty and divisiveness he left in his wake.

When it came to the cases under review in the trial, many of the prosecution's arguments appeared thin and legally reckless. The statute of limitations had clearly expired on the corruption charges, which raises questions about why the prosecution would pursue those cases in the first place.

Even if the alleged crimes had occurred within the statute of limitations, there appeared to be no evidence proving that those villas were discounted or sold in exchange for the Mubarak family's decision to award a lucrative contract to export gas to Israel to a company formed by Hussein Salem, the fugitive business tycoon.

There was even speculation that Mubarak would not be found guilty of having a role in the deaths of protesters because of the paucity of evidence connecting him to the authorisation of lethal force by the police. Mr Refaat appeared to find Mubarak guilty based on the former president's political responsibility, rather than issuing a direct order.

The trial is but one example of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces' poorly managed political transition for Egypt. Elections have been held before a new constitution has been written, leading to a confusing and dangerous situation where the new president will theoretically assume the powers Mubarak had when he resigned.

Likewise, the prosecution proceeded with a criminal case without any kind of parallel accounting of what happened during the 18-day uprising or the decades before.

It is no wonder that throngs of activists and ordinary Egyptians suspect the remnants of the old regime are trying to preserve their power.

The lesson for the other countries of the Arab Spring is that the story of a country's transition should not be written in courts, but through an open and objective examination of the facts.

bhope@thenational.ae