Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Meaning of Mubarak's Trial

Tony Karon, as savvy and realist as ever (indeed, by my lights, he - along with Peter Pillar and Stephen Walt - is perhaps the most perceptive commentator around on issues Middle Eastern - and no disrespect intended to other stalwarts like Patrick Cockburn, Robert Fisk, Rami Khouri, Patrick Seale - and no, I do not include Thomas Friedman in my line-up) . . . on the meaning of Hosni Mubarak's trial, which began today:
when the excesses and abuses of the regime finally provoked a revolt of the masses last winter, the military spine of the regime recognized that stability could not be restored as long as Mubarak remained in power -- so, the generals forced him out. But they did not yield power to the risen masses; instead, they claimed it for themselves, as a collective -- the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, a not-entirely-transparent junta composed of between 20 and 28 officers from the top echelon of the military. Initially, they simply shipped Mubarak off to his summer residence in Sharm el-Sheikh, hoping to allow him a dignified retirement. But the clamor on the streets continued for the erstwhile "Pharaoh" to be brought to justice and for the defanging the security services that had been the regime's political bludgeon.

Putting Mubarak on trial is the junta's response, heeding a popular demand, but without necessarily changing the power equation. The trial coincided with the clearing of Tahrir Square of the last remnants of the protest movement last Saturday, the Supreme Council determined to restore order and put an end to disruptive mass action as it oversees a transition on its own terms. There have been plenty of indications that the generals may seek to retain some authority over the elected government in any new order. Whether they'll achieve that goal may depend on the extent to which Egyptians are prepared to allow it, and the leverage they can muster to prevent it.

Many lizards have defense mechanism known as "autotomy", shedding their tails in moments of mortal peril, creating a skittering and twitching decoy to distract an attacker. If the predator is fooled, the lizard escapes, and grows a new tail.

While Mubarak has been shed, the regime remains intact -- and in charge. His trial could be the dawning of a new era of accountability that forever changes Egyptian politics by empowering its citizens to take their destiny into their own hands and subordinate their armed forces to the civilian government they elect. It could, however, also turn out to have been a spectacle of symbolic retribution that does little to alter the fact that it is the generals that hold power, even if they claim to do so in the name of "the revolution".

Either way, that's question that will be answered outside the courtroom.

TK might also have noted that lizards are cold-blooded creatures - kind of like military regimes; and that they like to bask in the sun.  A public shaming of Mubarak, followed by his conviction, might provide the military an opportunity for basking as it separates itself from one of its own.  One has to wonder, though, if a subsequent execution would be in the cards.  I suspect that SCAF might draw the line at that, if only to avoid a precedent that might come back to bite them - and to avert any hard feelings within their own ranks in the aftermath.  It would be difficult to believe that Mubarak had no friends within the officer corps whence he came.

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