So It's Justice You Want?

What are we to make of the public spectacle of Hosni Mubarak's trial? One idea might be to look at how the new democracies in Eastern Europe dealt with their deposed dictators two decades ago.

The pictures of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in a hospital bed behind the bars of a defendant's cage arouse mixed reactions. On the one hand, here is a dictator who is being brought to trial following a successful popular revolution that led to his downfall, without any blood-letting by the revolutionaries. On the other hand, of all the Arab rulers, Mubarak was definitely not among the cruelest, yet he is the one who is being put on trial, even as Syrian President Bashar Assad continues to kill his citizens, and Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi holds on - and with whom, for all we know, Western democracies may yet negotiate if he survives. And the rulers of Saudi Arabia and Algeria, all of them, in one way or another champions of cruel suppression of basic human rights, are secure in their seats while Mubarak is the one who is put on trial.

Moreover, who are the people trying Mubarak? The head of the military junta, Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, who was his protege for years, and other members of the clique, all of whom were Mubarak loyalists and appointees. Even without knowing too much about the judges and the prosecutors, it would not be a wild guess to imagine that they were not among the people who demonstrated in Tahrir Square, but rather where nurtured and promoted during Mubarak's tenure.

Egypt protest

It would not be surprising if a sense of natural justice is not exactly satisfied by the show that is unfolding now at the police academy on Cairo's outskirts.

Precisely because there is a tendency to compare the Arab Spring, and especially what happened in Tahrir Square, to the series of revolutions that brought about the downfall of communist regimes in Eastern Europe, there is perhaps room to ask how those new democratic regimes treated their countries' former rulers, who were beyond doubt more suppressive and murderous than Mubarak's regime.

It turns out that one of the most impressive achievements of those revolutions was the fact that except for in Romania, the new regimes were not vindictive, nor did they engage in show trials or executions of the previous rulers. The Romanian exception fits in with the fact that the post-communist regime in Bucharest is not one of the best when it comes to democracy or an absence of corruption.

The absence of vindictiveness in Eastern Europe no doubt eased the movement toward democratization and even provided those regimes with legitimacy; it embodied the difference between a democratic ethos, which does not require the sharp and sometimes cruel weapon of political trials, and totalitarian regimes, of which such show trials are an unsavory characteristic.

What did happen in the post-communist countries was that anyone who had served, in one way or another, in senior positions of the former regime - and especially if he held a position in the security services or associated organizations - was barred from continuing to serve in a public office or to compete in democratic elections.

Had this logic been applied to Egypt, then beyond a shadow of a doubt the currently ruling military junta and its supporters - and one can assume also the judges and prosecutors in Mubarak's trial - all would have been disqualified. Even in the exceptional case of Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, the last communist leader in Poland, the decision to put him on trial was made more than a decade after he was deposed - and that, too, following much hesitation and without enthusiasm. He was never jailed and because of his poor health, he was allowed to be absent from most of the court's sessions. The trial, which was low profile, never became a substitute for the impressive array of reforms that facilitated Poland's transition to a functioning democracy.

No great success

All this, of course, is not the way things are happening in Egypt, and that affects the problematic assessment of the revolution in that country to date. The military junta surrendered to the demonstrators' demands and moved up Mubarak's trial despite his illness and despite his decision to stay in Egypt rather than flee, in the manner of Tunisia's former president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who escaped to Saudi Arabia. But one must acknowledge that so far the Egyptian revolution is no great success. True, the tip of the ruling pyramid, Mubarak and his ministers, were deposed and are now standing trial, but the state is ruled by a military council, all of whose members were appointed by Mubarak and continue to enjoy privileges amassed by the army elite during more than 50 years.

The move to democracy - not to mention the improvement in the economic conditions of tens of millions of Egyptians - is still far off. It is not at all clear when elections will be held, and if they are held, is there a guarantee that democratic and liberal elements will win them, or will Egypt deteriorate into a kind of depressing theocracy? In the meantime, it is difficult to imagine the army relinquishing its social and economic privileges. Legal vindictiveness is not an alternative to genuine democratic and social reforms.

One can look at these issues from a wider perspective: The dissidents in Eastern Europe did not only have in mind the violence of the Soviet revolution as an example of what they should steer clear of. People like Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia and Adam Michnik, who was one of the leaders of the then-illegal democratic opposition in Poland, were well versed in the history of Europe and were aware of the distortions of the 1789 French Revolution, which initially seemed to attract all the hopes of freedom nurtured by the French and European enlightenment, but deteriorated within a few years to Jacobin terror and counterterror.

The most horrifying symbol of this deterioration was the public execution of King Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette. This event transformed the revolution from a symbol of freedom and hope, which was expected to unite all the French people, across their strata, into a source for bitter arguments that tore through the French nation for more than 100 years and echoes to this day in France. The transformation of the guillotine into the effective symbol of the French Revolution haunts it to this day.

A different murderousness

In contrast with people of other Arab states, such as Syria and Iraq, the Egyptians are relatively nonviolent. That was expressed in the impressive demonstrations at Tahrir, in the relatively moderate reaction of the authorities, and in the fact that Mubarak stepped down and did not resort to the kind of murderousness that now characterizes Assad and Gadhafi. That is why I believe that despite the demand for a death sentence, one can assume that, even if Mubarak and his sons are convicted, they will not be executed.

It is worth noting that the Egyptian officers who revolted in 1952 against King Farouk did not execute him (in contrast with the brutality with which the heads of the Iraqi royalty were murdered a few years later ): He was put on a boat at Alexandria port that took him into exile. It would have been very easy to accuse him of corruption and of issuing orders to shoot at demonstrators during the protests held in Egypt during his reign. The sensibility and moderation of the revolutionary officers led by Muhammad Naguib prevented such extreme and hurried steps and no doubt contributed to the revolution's legitimacy.

The Egyptian revolution is still in its early stages. It will be tested by the ability to move to a democratic regime that will effectively enshrine political and civilian freedoms; ensure regular elections and governmental transparency; and succeed in coping with the country's severe economic problems. Responding to populist pressure for vengeance might, perhaps, satisfy public opinion in the short run, but will contribute nothing to resolving Egypt's real and difficult problems.

On reflection, one may be allowed the thought that if it were right to put any Egyptian president on trial, then it should have been Gamal Abdel Nasser in the defendant's cage: He embroiled his country in two wars with Israel in which thousands of Egyptian soldiers were killed and wounded. The Egyptian military suffered a decisive and degrading defeat under him. He also intervened in a civil war in Yemen in which the Egyptian army used poison gas against their Arab brethren, and under cover of pan-Arabism and so-called socialist rhetoric, contributed to deepening his people's poverty and distress. But in his case, history has already rendered its verdict.