Text size

Judge Ahmed Refaat, who is presiding over the trial of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak that began Wednesday, has the reputation of ruling against the regime's wishes. But Refaat belongs to the judicial elite that was fostered by the Mubarak regime, and he will rule by the laws the protesters who brought down the regime hope to change some day.

Wednesday, however, there was no criticism of the judge or the judicial system. Despite Refaat's widely quoted comment, "we are a judicial bench, not a theater stage," the stage Wednesday overshadowed the bench.

The permission for cameras to cover the trial, the free exchanges between the lawyers and the judge, and especially Mubarak, brought in on his sickbed to the prisoner's cage, clad in white pajamas recalling a shroud, all created the drama of what is already being called the trial of the century.

It is indeed a historic trial, which, even before it began, heralded a new model for revolutions. "The people" did not storm the presidential palace, nor did they tear their leader apart in the street. "The people" ordered him put on trial like any other citizen.

It's doubtful whether the Syrian people will make do with that if they bring down President Bashar Assad, or whether Libyan ruler Muammar Gadhafi will reach the courtroom. But this is Egypt. Even when the people are demonstrating in the streets and demanding an end to the regime, they still respect the court's status and (relative ) integrity.

Columnist Mohammed Fahim wrote in the Egyptian daily Al-Youm Al-Saba, "Today the first pharaoh stands trial, who disdained his people, starved them and sold them for a mess of pottage. Yet the people ... gave him medical care and allowed him to defend himself in a court of law .... History will remember Egypt for this white revolution, which was not tainted by traitors."

It seems that more than vengeance and punishment, the president's opponents want to restore their national pride, and the very existence of the trial, at least at this stage, is perceived as a corrective national experience.

The main charge against Mubarak involves the extent of his responsibility for the killing of protesters in the revolt's first days. But it seems the "crime" that brought him here is the fact that he was completely cut off from the people.

His disdain, mingled with disgust for his opponents, has dispelled the public's mercy completely. "Mubarak was a victim of his regime just as the regime was his victim," columnist Abdel-Moneim Said wrote Wednesday in the government newspaper Al-Ahram.

The court's right to judge the president could continue to prove controversial, since according to the Egyptian constitution, adopted in 1971, only a special court appointed by the legislature can try a president in office. And he can only be convicted by a two-thirds majority of the legislature.

While it's true that Mubarak is no longer president, and the constitution was suspended after power was transferred to the Supreme Military Council, Mubarak's crimes were committed while he was in office.

But until that issue comes up for debate, Tahrir Square has gotten what it wanted. However, this national experience will not satisfy the public if there is no real change in the regime, the constitution and the economic status of millions of Egyptians. The Supreme Military Council Wednesday made only a down payment to the people, who have still not abandoned the square of their revolution.