When Egyptian Judge Ahmed Refaat gave a life sentence on Saturday to former dictator Hosni Mubarak for being an accessory in the deaths of more than 800 protestors during the “Egyptian Spring,” the initial reaction among many in the crowded courtroom was joyful. Many expected Mubarak to be found innocent, or receive a more lenient sentence. But outrage exploded across Egypt when Refaat acquitted the six security chiefs of the same crimes as their boss and dismissed corruption charges against Mubarak and his two sons. Chaos in the courtroom spilled outside where police battled enraged demonstrators with stun grenades and truncheons. The verdict has possibly redefined the upcoming Egyptian presidential election — people may fear a return of Mubarak-style rule more than they fear the Muslim Brotherhood. On the other hand, Mubarak regime holdover and Brotherhood opponent Ahmed Shafiq is demonstrating that he may be able to leverage events in his favor, as the presidential race becomes muddier than ever.
The protests only grew in size when the demonstrators moved on to iconic Tahrir Square in Cairo where the largest and most determined protests against Mubarak’s 30-year-reign helped topple the dictator. Tens of thousands of Egyptians rallied and chanted “Illegal! Illegal!” and “Either we get justice for our martyrs or we die like them!”
It is unknown how the verdict will affect the presidential runoff election later this month that pits former Mubarak prime minister Ahmed Shafiq against the Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi. Both candidates were out on the hustings on Sunday trying to exploit the crisis for their own political gain. Both candidates have good cases to make to different constituencies so the chances of one of them receiving a decisive advantage as a result of the turmoil are lessened considerably.
Mubarak’s conviction — along with the conviction on the same charges of his interior minister Habib al-Adli — could very well be overturned on appeal according to several experts on Egyptian law. “It’s a completely politicized verdict that is meant to calm the masses,” said Maha Youssef, a legal expert from the Nadim Center in Cairo. He added, “The essence of a ruling by a criminal court judge is not in the papers of the case but in his own personal conviction as someone who lives among the people and know what goes on in his society.”
A Wall Street Journal editorial offered similar thoughts:
From its start last summer, the prosecution of Egypt’s deposed strongman Hosni Mubarak was a hasty, politicized circus. So it’s no surprise that the trial’s conclusion on Saturday has brought no closure or sense of justice.
The editorial also pointed out “[t]he ‘accessory’ charge is weak and could be overthrown easily on appeal.” Mr. Mubarak’s lawyers have already indicated they will seek a retrial. The verdict will also be appealed by the prosecutor because he feels the judge went too easy on the defendants.
But it is not so much the Mubarak verdict that has enraged democracy activists and others. It is the acquittal of the six security chiefs, as well as the dropping of charges against Mubarak’s sons, Gamal and Alaa, that have placed the former dictator’s verdict in the context of a society where nothing much has changed despite Mubarak’s ouster. The protestors in Tahrir Square were calling for an end to military rule — just as they have for more than 15 months. The suspicion among the young activists who manned the barricades during the worst of the attempted suppression of the revolt is that the military will find a way to acquit the dictator on appeal and rig the election so that Shafiq emerges victorious. A huge demonstration is planned for Tuesday, and the Muslim Brotherhood is expected to participate, flexing its political muscle in the street where its candidate Mr. Morsi seeks to capture the spirit and enthusiasm that was evident on Saturday and Sunday in protests across the country.