The conviction and life imprisonment sentences handed down Saturday to former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and former Interior Minister Habib Adli mark a profound but still imprecise turning point in the single most important battle that has defined the Arab world for the last two generations, and the last 60 years of uninterrupted military rule in Egypt: the contest between whether the Arab people will be ruled by democratically legitimate civilian authorities or by self-imposed, self-perpetuating military rulers.
The convictions are profound because they symbolically mark a victory by those tens of millions of Egyptians – and by extension, the several hundred million other Arabs – who have overthrown four regimes and seriously challenged two others in the past 18 months, demanding that their dictatorial rulers be held accountable for their brutality, corruption and abuse of power.
Egyptian demonstrators who braved dangers, or who have died, finally achieved their single most important symbolic goal, which is to put on trial, convict and jail for life Mubarak and Adli. They personify the thousands of other incumbent officials who brutalized and demeaned the Egyptian people for decades. They also embody a system of military rule that enriched a small circle of insiders, while relegating the rest of the 80 million Egyptians to a long and degrading cycle of poverty, mediocrity and marginalization.
In the last 30 years of Mubarak rule, a once proud and productive Egyptian people and nation had been pummeled by authoritarian military rulers into a wreck and a laughing stock. Trying, convicting and jailing these two men for life, by an indigenous Egyptian court, was probably the single most widespread deeply felt desire among the Egyptian people in the last 18 months. It sent the message that those who abuse and degrade their own people will one day be held accountable, and that public opinion in the Arab world matters again.
On another level, however, the court case is imprecise in its full meaning, because of technical flaws and some powerful underlying political messages. The technical flaws relate to widespread skepticism about how the two senior leaders could be convicted in the deaths of hundreds of demonstrators while six senior police and security officers who were in charge of operational commands were found innocent and released. This captured the underlying political message that many fear is inherent in the Saturday verdicts: that the Egyptian security state will sacrifice one or two senior officials to placate popular anger, while preserving control of real power in the country through a web of military, police and intelligence agencies.
This issue becomes all the more significant because of the timing of the verdicts, two weeks before the runoff presidential election and the planned handover of power to civilian authorities by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) that has governed Egypt since Mubarak’s overthrow in February 2011.
One of the two presidential candidates, Ahmad Shafiq, a former Air Force commander and the last prime minister under Mubarak, represents the attempt by the military-backed old guard to retain power and nullify the gains of the revolution. The Mubarak court verdict increases fears among many Egyptians that SCAF is shielding the operational core of the deep security state from public scrutiny and accountability, and will also work with the existing massive bureaucracy and the many security agencies to engineer a Shafiq victory over Mohammad Mursi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate.
Critics of SCAF point out, for example, that the former Mubarak regime used biased military courts to try some 2,000 critics over 30 years, while SCAF has used the same military courts to try over 12,000 Egyptians in the past year and a half, according to estimates by human rights organizations monitoring this issue.
This is why the court verdict, while satisfying the popular need for justice and retribution against former dictators, only intensifies concerns throughout Egypt and the Arab world about whether the Middle East can ever get rid of military rulers, and enjoy true civilian democratic rule. This remains the central battle of the Arab world today. It plays itself out in different forms across the region, in countries like Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain and Libya.
Two ageing military rulers were convicted and jailed in Cairo last week, but the military ruling edifice remains largely in place. Hundreds of generals and colonels are still contesting and negotiating power with the new civilian authorities that are trying to find their footing in a country that is still in the early stages of redefining itself, and deciding if its government will be managed by elected civilians or even more ageing generals and colonels. The great battle for the soul and identity of Egypt and the Arab world continues.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR.