According to Egyptian news reports former president Hosni Mubarak will stand trial on August 3 for crimes he allegedly committed before and during the revolution that shook the country last January. Whatever the outcome, by authorizing these hearings, and hearings for his associates, the 20 senior officers of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which seized power in February, have tried to distance themselves from Mubarak's fallen regime and buy themselves much-needed legitimacy. Still, the SCAF might have promised more than it will deliver.
After Mubarak's February ouster, the country's state prosecutor, presumably operating under SCAF instructions, wasted no time in putting together a raft of cases against the president, his sons, his ministers, and their business associates. Mubarak, former Interior Minister Habib al-Adly, and six senior ministry officials are accused of having ordered police to shoot unarmed demonstrators in January. Mubarak, his sons Alaa and Gamal, and their alleged business partner, Hussein Salem, are all charged with illegally profiteering through a number of schemes, including selling natural gas to Israel at below-market prices. Meanwhile, several major figures in Mubarak's National Democratic Party, including Safwat al-Sherif, Egypt's former information minister, and Fathi Surour, the former speaker of parliament, face trial for having mustered a small army of petty criminals and other regime supporters to attack Tahrir protesters on February 2 and 3, what is now known as the "Battle of the Camel," since some were mounted on dromedaries.
The charges have impressed many Egyptians, even those who live far from Cairo or were initially hesitant to support the revolution since Mubarak had at least brought 30 years of relative stability. Before the January uprising, state media had acknowledged that the Egyptian government suffered from corruption but had presented Mubarak as a reformer trying to control dishonest ministers and elites. During the revolution, the media also present the protesters as naïve, or manipulated by foreign powers. By charging Mubarak and his family with defrauding the public, the prosecutors have reduced any lingering sympathy for them, and vindicated Mubarak's ouster.
On a hot July afternoon, a group of farmers from the village of Arab al-Tambakiya gathered to discuss Egypt's future. They told me that the prosecutions had convinced them that the old regime was rotten at the top. Further, they had already seen some improvements since the revolution. Economically, times were as tough as ever, they said, but the police no longer harassed them and public officials had become somewhat less aggressive in their demands for bribes. The farmers had no specific vision for the type of government that should replace the SCAF, but they seemed confident that it would at least be more honest than Mubarak's. "What's coming next will be better than what went before," said Saad Mohammed, who had been a member of Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party. "Any official [who steals] will be afraid to be put in prison."
Although the cases against the old regime's big names have drawn the most attention nationwide, many political activists pointed out the paucity of trails for low- and mid-level police officers. Police brutality, such as the infamous June 2010 beating death of 28 year-old Khaled Said, was one of the major grievances that ultimately brought millions of Egyptians onto the streets in January. And, during the revolution, police shot hundreds dead. Justice for these "martyrs" and their families is one of the few demands that unites the various branches of Egypt's opposition.
Mansour al-Essawy, the new interior minister appointed by the SCAF government, has promised justice, but squandered his credibility by acting as though he is trying to protect fellow officers: ignoring calls to surrender police snipers alleged to have fired on demonstrators, and retaining in the ministry senior officers whom activists say are abusive and corrupt.
So far, only a handful of officers have been prosecuted, and just one convicted, in absentia. On July 4, when a Cairo court released on bail seven police officers accused of shooting protesters during the January riots in Suez, residents again took to the streets. They reoccupied Tahrir Square, flying banners calling for "serious purging and serious judging."
The SCAF may be easy to blame, but part of the reason for the lack of prosecutions might lie elsewhere. Egypt's judges are a famously independent lot, and have signaled their willingness to acquit defendants if the cases against them are sloppily built. Egypt's investigating magistrates are dependent on police officers cooperation to compile evidence and, in the chaos that followed the revolution, many police were afraid for their lives and in no position to gather evidence even if they had wanted to. The cases against Mubarak and senior officials, for their part, rest on documenting where and when shoot-to-kill orders were issued -- a difficult task at any time.