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Mubarak Trial an ‘Extraordinary Moment’ for Egypt, Middle East

August 3, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
The trial of Hosni Mubarak, the former Egyptian strongman, began Wednesday with him pleading innocent to charges of corruption and presiding over the killing of nearly 900 protesters. Margaret Warner discusses the trial's significance with Harvard University's Tarek Masoud and the Council on Foreign Relations' Steven Cook.

MARGARET WARNER: And for more on today’s trial and its significance, we go to Tarek Masoud, assistant professor of public policy at Harvard University, where he focuses on the Middle East, and Steven Cook, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Welcome to you both.

Tarek Masoud, beginning with you, as we just heard voices from Cairo say, a lot of Egyptians thought this would never happen. How big a moment is this for Egypt, and in what way?

TAREK MASOUD, Harvard University: Oh, this is a really huge moment, I think, for Egypt and I think for the Arab world more broadly.

I mean, if we think about it, this is the third time, only the third time that an Arab dictator has actually been called to account for crimes he’s committed in office. The first time was Saddam Hussein’s trial in 2005 and ’06, which was illegitimate — seen as illegitimate by people because it took place in the context of occupation.

The second trial, it just began, was the trial of the Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. But he actually is in Saudi Arabia, so that’s a trial in absentia. So it’s only really in Egypt do we have the dictator in court, sitting, facing his accusers and being held to account for crimes he committed in office by not a military court or some kind of kangaroo court, but by legitimate civilian court.

So I think this is pretty extraordinary.

MARGARET WARNER: Steven Cook, what would you add to that on the significance of this?

STEVEN COOK, Council on Foreign Relations: Oh, without a doubt, this is an extraordinary moment in Egyptian history and Middle East — in the history of the Middle East. I agree with Tarek 100 percent.

I think the thing that people need to watch for is how this trial is conducted. If it’s conducted in the best traditions of the Egyptian judiciary, it does set the stage for Egyptians to build a new, better, more open, decent political system.

If it turns out it — to be revolutionary justice and more about retribution and revenge, it will be — set a precedent that I don’t think many Egyptians who are hoping for a new system to — to realize that system.

MARGARET WARNER: Briefly define what you mean by revolutionary justice.

STEVEN COOK: Well, I think that the notion that Mubarak should have due process and the rule of law should prevail and that this process should unfold in the way that Egyptian judicial practices, adhere to those standards, as low as they may be in some case, it’s important that Egyptians see that, even for someone like President Mubarak, former President Mubarak.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, Tarek — Tarek Masoud, a lot of Egyptians used to say they didn’t think there was much justice in Egypt, that the courts were rigged.

TAREK MASOUD: You know, Margaret, that’s actually very interesting.

The Egyptian judiciary actually has had a fair measure of legitimacy in Egypt over the past 50 years. So where people might think that elections are rigged or other state institutions are unfair, for whatever reason, the judiciary has actually been seen by people on the whole as the most legitimate institution in Egypt.

So I think that there’s a sense here that this court system is well-equipped to handle this trial. You know, Steve warned that, if this devolves into revolutionary justice, where there is a departure from due process, that obviously this would be a stain on Egypt’s reputation. But I think what people in Egypt may be afraid of is precisely the opposite, that the courts will get mired in due process and actually won’t hold Mubarak sufficiently accountable, either because of their kind of internal processes or because they have been directed by the military to not punish Mubarak.

So that, I think, is what people are worried about, is they’re worried that the court system may not punish Mubarak as fully as people believe he needs to be punished. So, there is this very delicate balancing act that has to happen here.

STEVEN COOK: Precisely what I mean by revolutionary justice and a desire for revenge, which you can understand. And this is why perhaps this trial in this way is not the best way of going about it.

Perhaps a truth and reconciliation commission, along the lines of what happened in South Africa many years ago, would have been a better way of go — to go.

MARGARET WARNER: You mean because that would really lay out all the abuses, how the secret police apparatus worked and all of that?


Clearly, Mubarak, his lawyers are going to try to hide these things, because there is a sense that Egyptians are out for retribution and that the military is no longer interested in protecting Mubarak.

MARGARET WARNER: Tarek, can we go to this question about whether this is — I mean, the protesters say they’re demanding accountability to bring all these regime figures to court. Do you think it’s about accountability, or is it about revenge, or it is something more productive than that even?

TAREK MASOUD: I think — look, I mean, Egyptian society is very pluralistic. There are some people who want revenge. There are other people who want to hold Mubarak accountable, and there are still other people who want to use this to kind of build a new — a new Egypt that shows respect for law and an end to impunity.

I think that, you know, going with the Egyptian court system, with all the risks that Steve and I have identified, may still be the best way forward. I think that, you know, anything else, anything — you know, any new structure that you set up to try Mubarak could have the appearance of a kind of kangaroo court, and part of the potential beauty of this process is that he’s being tried in a civilian court, in the same court that I would be tried in if I committed a crime in Egypt.

So, that’s a promising thing.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Steven Cook, what effect do you think this trial, the fact of the trial — and it’s going to be unfolding I guess in the coming months — is going to have on the shaping of the new government, the new election system that’s coming up this fall for the new Egypt — to create the new Egypt?

STEVEN COOK: Well, I think people are looking for this trial for precisely those kinds of signals.

And as I said before, and as Tarek has pointed out, if this trial unfolds in a way where it is seemingly fair, it is a stepping-stone to sending a message to new leaders, to the people who are going to be writing a new Egyptian constitution that accountability must be built and it must be institutionalized in a new system.

MARGARET WARNER: But, I mean, there were some tweets going around today and so on saying this could actually inflame passions, it might not be terribly healthy.

STEVEN COOK: Well, it may. It very — as Tarek pointed out, this is a pluralistic society. There are some people who are for this. There are some people who want revenge. And there are some people who want accountability.

If the Egyptian judiciary lives up to its traditions — and I agree 100 percent with Tarek — it is a well-respected institution — it will set Egypt off in a good way, rather than something pretty bad.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Tarek — sorry — Tarek Masoud, do you think this will have an effect in any way in shaping the parliamentary elections that are coming up in November that everybody is supposed to be getting ready for?

TAREK MASOUD: You know, that’s a very interesting question.

I think this broader question of justice absolutely will have an impact on the parliamentary elections, because, you know, everybody in Egypt now is worried about a counter-revolution. They’re worried about forces that were allied with Mubarak that may not be happy with the democratic turn the country seems to be taking and are doing everything in their power to halt that turn by fomenting chaos and violence.

And so if these forces, these shadowy forces who everybody in Egypt talks about, if they see the trial of Mubarak as — as simply the first step towards holding all of these people accountable and towards punishing anybody who had any link to the old regime, including the types of people what might run for Parliament, then we may in fact see that the parliamentary elections may be the site of violence, attempts to foment chaos, et cetera.

MARGARET WARNER: And, briefly, Steven Cook, the past month has in Tahrir Square seen demonstrations, counterdemonstrations, the police clearing the square on Monday. Do you think this — that the society is more divided, and will this trial affect that one way or another?

STEVEN COOK: Egyptian society has always been divided, and it has always been ideologically richer and more contested than we have ever given it credit for. And that’s what we’re seeing.

Now that the authoritarian rule has been lifted, people are engaged in politics. And we’re going to see this kind of contestation going forward.

MARGARET WARNER: Steven Cook and Tarek Masoud, thank you both.

STEVEN COOK: Pleasure.

TAREK MASOUD: Thank you.