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In defense of the Mubarak trial

August 3, 2011

Quiet night near Sayyeda Zeinab, summer 2009.

Today was former Egyptian president’s first day on the stand at a military school on the outskirts of Cairo, where he is on trial for several counts, including ordering the death of protesters in January and February, corruption and abuse of power.

He lay frail on a bed, within a cage. Cages are the blinding sight of judicial power seen in the Middle East and Russia, and they’re a sight that’s painful to the American and European eye. But, they serve the purpose of protecting Mubarak from others as much as protecting him from escape.

His health has failed him over the last decade, but nobody has known for certain just how severe his ailments are as the media were not allowed to write about his condition. Rumors swirled about strokes, various cancer, brain aneurysms and other illnesses. There was near incessant speculation he was headed to Frankfurt or Paris for treatments of one kind or another. He had been kept these last few months at a prison in Sharm, a resort town he frequented during his reign.

But really, none of this is about his health. He was a dictator, and a cruel one. It’s the spectacle of him on a hospital bed that will catch folks’ eyes. Truth is, from what I’ve been reading, he’s not been receiving much sympathy. The weight of his actions far outweighs any temporal concerns for his health. He will be cared for, treated, but he will stand trial.

While so many Egyptians are ready to put this chapter of three decades behind them, negotiate with the SCAF and look towards the November elections, laying justice on Mubarak is of great importance. Like the many trials of history, that of war criminals in the Hague, the Nuremberg trials, that of Saddam Hussein, watching the had of justice do its work brings relief, and it brings order, and it brings closure.

I think these three elements are vital. While Egyptians rightfully want to refrain from lavishing their former president with any more attention than absolutely necessary, this trial will serve as a healing process as much as a judicial one. The airing of the grievances must take place in a court of law–and court that a year ago was farcical in its implementation of justice–but a court nevertheless. There will be reason and fairness. And those are two elements that were absent in civil discourse previously, under the heavy hand of a dictator so terrified of Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood (not even one in the same) and power that he was unable to uphold the democratic values he always appealed to. To be sure, the trial won’t be perfect. Their government and legal system remain in flux. The degree of “in-bedded-ness” between officials in the courtroom, soldiers, lawyers and others is still significant. He may be a monster still receiving a king’s treatment, and he is a man reviled on the level of terrorist by many. But he deserves a trial.

It’s critical for Egyptians to pay attention to the trial. To see it unfold. And to bid him farewell.

He will stand trial. And it will do him and Egypt a world of good.

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