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How Will Mubarak’s Trial Shape Egypt’s Transition?

May 25, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
After months of agitation by protesters, Egypt's former President Mubarak and two sons will stand trial on charges of murder, attempted murder and abuse of power. Margaret Warner discusses how the legal action could shape Egypt's transition with Arab Reform Bulletin's Michele Dunne and Georgetown University's Samer Shehata.
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GWEN IFILL: The latest twists and turns in Egypt’s revolution.

And to Margaret Warner.

MARGARET WARNER: Egyptians and their media today were still digesting the news. After months of agitation by protesters, the country’s chief prosecutor said yesterday their former president and his sons will be put on trial — the charges against Hosni Mubarak and his sons Alaa and Gamal: murder and attempted murder of demonstrators and abuse of power involving public funds.

A spokesman for the prosecutor general said, if convicted on the murder charge, Mubarak could face the death penalty in the deaths of an estimated 850 people during the 18-day uprising in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

Since being deposed on Feb. 11, Mubarak has been either in his seaside home in Sharm el-Sheikh or a hospital nearby. His sons and more than a dozen former associates have been held behind bars.

The charges come as the military government is trying to pave the way for parliamentary elections in September and a transition to civilian rule. The activists have called for another major protest Friday in Tahrir Square.

For more we turn to Michele Dunne, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and editor of the online journal the Arab Reform Bulletin — she’s served at the State Department and on the National Security Council staff — and Samer Shehata, assistant professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University.

And welcome back to you both.

Mr. — Professor Shehata, beginning with you, this — Hosni Mubarak, just days before he left office, was speaking of his bond with Egypt, and he said, “I will die on its land.”

What changed?

SAMER SHEHATA, Georgetown University Center for Contemporary Arab Studies: Well, what changed was millions of people demonstrating in Tahrir and other squares calling for him to be held accountable, as well as regime officials.

We have to remember that he stepped down or was removed on Feb. 11 and was a free man until about April 15 or so. And what happened in the interim were demonstrations, particularly a major million-person demonstration on April 8, calling for him to be put on trial and calling for other regime officials who were free to be held accountable.

MARGARET WARNER: But he could have fled, could — could he not?

SAMER SHEHATA: He could have fled. And I — but I think that, as you mentioned, he said that he was going to die on Egyptian soil. He’s 82 — 83 now.

The question was, why didn’t his two sons and wife, who hold British nationality, not flee? I think everyone thought that he was going to be allowed to stay in Egypt.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Michele Dunne, how telling a moment is this now, if we look at the bigger picture, in the sort of evolution of this Egypt revolution?

MICHELE DUNNE, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: What’s going on now is that Egypt is caught somewhere between an ongoing revolution, with protesters who are still trying to tear down the old system. And that’s what the prosecution of Mubarak is about.

It’s about several things. It’s about tearing down the old regime. And it’s about holding someone accountable for the over 800 deaths that took place during the uprising. And it’s also about tackling the issue of corruption.

Anyway, Egypt is caught between an ongoing revolution and a political transition. The military leadership wants to move the country toward elections, toward a political transition. And I think, in a way give, giving up the Mubaraks to prosecution is something that the military has had to do, a concession they have had to make in order to try to persuade people to move toward elections.

MARGARET WARNER: So, how much leverage do these protesters have? They seem to use both demonstrations and the threat of demonstrations to extract more and more.

MICHELE DUNNE: Yes, that’s exactly what they’re doing. And there’s another big demonstration possibly on Friday. We’re also seeing some differences.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which has sometimes participated in these very large demonstrations, has said it’s not going to join in the big demonstration on Friday. And I think the Muslim Brotherhood is beginning to put its weight on the side of, let’s move into a political transition.

MARGARET WARNER: Is there any prospect, do you think, Professor Shehata, of that — that the interim military government would accede to the big demand of the protesters, which is to delay, actually delay the elections? Because they say, right, they need more time to organize parties and…

SAMER SHEHATA: Right.

MARGARET WARNER: … learn how to do this.

SAMER SHEHATA: I don’t think — I don’t think that’s going to happen.

Clearly, there was a referendum that took place on March the 19th, and 77 percent of those who participated voted yes on the constitutional amendments. And it was implied there was a timeline that there that the Supreme Council has put in place.

I think only as a result of logistical obstacles to actually holding the elections in September would the Supreme Council change the schedule. I think the key point is, though — and this is something that people don’t seem to understand — the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces are not revolutionary. They’re not revolutionary vanguard. They were part of the regime.

And the protesters, the demonstrators are exerting pressure on them to fulfill the revolution. That means extending the revolution, eliminating members of the old regime, holding Mubarak on trial and so on. This is the way politics is being played in Egypt now because there are no functioning institutions. It’s who can protest the most.

MARGARET WARNER: So, even more broadly, regionally, what message does this send, or what do you think the impact of this will be, the Mubarak prosecution, on three other dictators who are resisting calls to leave, namely Assad in Syria, Saleh in Yemen, and Gadhafi in Libya?

MICHELE DUNNE: Well, when President Mubarak left office, there was no specific deal about what would happen. I mean, unlike, for example, Yemeni President Saleh, who has the opportunity maybe to negotiate the terms under which he leaves, that didn’t happen with Mubarak, you know.

So, I think that other leaders have to say, you know, either I negotiate the terms, or I get out right at the beginning, while there’s still a chance to do so.

MARGARET WARNER: So, every day, it seems, Professor, we read stories about, well, more violence between the minority Coptic Christians and the majority, crime being up, the economy, people complaining about they can’t make a living.

There was a story today out of Mubarak’s old hometown, with people kind of lamenting his passage. How — how stable would you say Egypt is right now?

SAMER SHEHATA: Certainly, Egypt is unsettled. There’s no question about that.

Security has declined from what it was previously. And, more importantly, there’s the perception that there is a crime wave. And that’s partially because the security forces, the police forces are not back doing what they’re supposed to do. They’re the ones who were defeated in this revolution.

And, of course, as you mentioned, there are economic issues. Tourism is down significantly. And there are these kinds of concerns. The fruits of revolution, unfortunately, take some time to be realized. And I think that’s the condition right now in Egypt.

MARGARET WARNER: But, I mean, if there’s a sort of power vacuum, other than this military council, do you think the country is going to be — become more and more unstable? What’s your view of the stability question as it moves towards these elections?

MICHELE DUNNE: Well, that’s exactly the reason why the military council wants to have the elections.

I think they don’t want to be holding the bag as the economic situation deteriorates. The good news is that, just in the last week, there’s been a lot of economic assistance for Egypt announced. President Obama announced a significant package, including a billion dollars worth of debt relief, last week.

Now we have seen the World Bank, Saudi Arabia. I think an IMF announcement is coming shortly, an E.U. announcement. So, some of the money to help Egypt through the immediate economic hardships and promise — and the promise of more once they hold free elections and so forth, that’s starting to come through. And perhaps it will give Egyptians some hope that their economic situation is going to get better.

MARGARET WARNER: Brief final thought. We only have a couple of seconds really.

So, you mentioned the Saudis. Reports are the Saudis tried to protect Mubarak from this prosecution. True?

SAMER SHEHATA: Very true. And, in fact, they tried to protect him even while he was in office, of course, avowedly. So, they have not been a force for democracy in Egypt or elsewhere in the region, as we know, of course, with Bahrain and so on.

MARGARET WARNER: And why? Because they…

SAMER SHEHATA: Well, democracy threatens the very foundation of Saudi politics. And the idea of a leader being held accountable by the people of course is anathema to the Saudis.

MARGARET WARNER: A lot more to watch.

Samer Shehata and Michele Dunne, thank you both.

MICHELE DUNNE: Thank you.   

SAMER SHEHATA: Thank you.