WORLD -- August 3, 2011 at 5:10 PM ET
Mubarak's Trial -- Completing the Revolution, or Diverting It?
It's been a breathtaking reversal of fortune in the timeless land of the Pharoahs.
Six months ago this week, with hundreds of thousands of protestors demanding his ouster, a commanding Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak went on television to promise his people he wouldn't run for re-election -- but insist that he, and only he, would shepherd the nation's transition to a democratic Egypt.
"I am a man of the army, and it is not in my nature to give up responsibility," he declared. "I have lived in this country. I have fought for it ... I will die on its land, and history will judge me and others."
Today, the televised image of Mubarak was of humiliation, lying on a hospital bed, inside a defendant's cage, in a makeshift Cairo courtroom. "I deny all these charges and accusations, categorically," he said in a surprisingly strong voice, holding the microphone with one hand and wagging his other finger. But he was flat on his back. The process of judgment had begun a lot sooner than he anticipated, not by history, but by his own countrymen.
The Egyptian military-in-charge didn't want to put their former commander and president on trial. But the people -- or at least the activists and demonstrators who continue to turnout in Tahrir Square -- demanded it. The army was loathe to defy them on this one.
The protesters insist their demand to try Mubarak and other regime figures is about accountability, for the killings of nearly 900 demonstrators during the uprising, and for the corruption by Mubarak's inner circle that robbed so many Egyptians of the fruits of their own hard work.
But it's also about deeper emotions and fears -- a way of striking out, and trying to stomp out, the brutal police state that kept Egypt's citizens down for so long. "It's not just about revenge," a senior administration official told me on background this week. "It's also their determination to complete the revolution -- and to ensure that the old regime never returns."
What it's not about is the future -- and there lies the danger in the activists' obsession with bringing Mubarak and his cronies to justice. The ongoing demonstrations and demands for "accountability" have raged alongside the really critical process of transforming Egypt from military to democratic rule. And that process seems rockier and messier by the day. With parliamentary elections just three months away, the secular moderate parties haven't organized candidates, campaigns or platforms.
The country's Islamist party, the Muslim Brotherhood, while facing some new divisions of its own, is far more organized and disciplined. It's acting like a political party whose players have had some practice running for office. Last month, the Brotherhood even made a calculated alliance with one of the old liberal parties, Wafd, to bolster their combined heft in the polls.
At stake -- a parliament that will be in charge of righting Egypt's teetering economy and even more crucially, of appointing a 100-member commission to draft a new Egyptian Constitution. That Constitution will determine whether the New Egypt is a tolerant, open society, or one dominated by those with a different vision.
If liberal activists want to keep old regime remnants from returning -- and Islamist authoritarians from rising in their place -- they need to buckle down to the hard political work that elections require. The revolution they started against Mubarak won't be "completed" until a flourishing democracy is built in his place.