There is no doubt that the trial of former President Hosni Mubarak is a turning point in the history of the Egyptian revolution. While, to wit, the jury is still out on the meaning and significance of the extraordinary verdict that the court issued, this article tries to read the verdict by placing it within a larger historical context.
The immediate significance of Mubarak’s trial is hard to miss. Unlike other countries of the so-called Arab Spring, we did not lynch our former president, nor did we try him in absentia after he had fled the country. Further still, we did not try him in a special tribunal formed by a foreign occupying power. Rather, we tried him in a normal court using ordinary civilian legislation. Mubarak’s trial thus reflects the degree to which the Egyptian legal system has evolved over the past two centuries. Together with numerous other institutions the Egyptian judiciary has been a bulwark for our modern state-building efforts.
However, the inconsistent verdict rendered in this trial reflects the serious defects from which Egyptian institutions have been suffering for a long time. In the speech he delivered before reading the verdict, the judge gave an account of the trial proceedings that depicted the court and the prosecution at loggerheads with each other. On its part, the prosecution had earlier accused the security forces of not cooperating with the investigations. To overcome this hurdle, the judge summoned “senior state officials” to hear their testimony, but during four closed sessions, the court accepted these testimonies without giving the lawyers the chance to cross-examine them. In addition to partially explaining the self-contradictory verdict, these tensions within the Egyptian judiciary are also indicative of the grave dangers facing one of the pillars of the modern Egyptian state.
Mubarak’s trial gains further significance for its ramifications on the current political scene, for the verdict came at a time of increased polarization between the two flanks of Egypt’s political life over the past 60 years, namely the security state and the Muslim Brotherhood. It also came at a time when Egyptians were still trying to make sense of the results of the first round of the presidential election, and when it is gradually being realized that those who voted for the revolution outnumber those who voted for either of the two front-runners. Moreover, the verdict prompted large numbers of demonstrators to take to the streets demanding not only a retrial of Mubarak, his sons and his henchmen, but also asking for a suspension of the second round of the presidential election.
A third way?
There is no doubt that we are now witnessing a revealing moment in the history of the revolution. More and more people are realizing that the gloves are now off and that the political landscape that has been shaped by the revolution has acquired a new shape. The huge multitudes who took to the streets following the verdict indicate the strong repulsion for the institutions of the deep state and suggest a growing belief that a third alternative, one that is neither the security state nor the religious state, may hold the key to getting us out of the current impasse.
It is too soon to figure out what this third alternative looks like, and only the following few days will reveal which form it will take. Soon we will be able to find out whether or not this third alternative can avoid the trap choosing between the military fascism that former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq is offering us and the religious populism that Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsy represents. But a short detour to modern Egyptian history might shed light on the harbingers of this third way, and show how it has become nearly inevitable.
A history of the 25 January revolution
The court over which Judge Ahmed Refaat was presiding is part of a venerable legal establishment that dates back to the 19th century. This legal establishment was, in turn, part of a constellation of modern institutions whose foundations had been laid down two centuries ago that included the press, schools, modern hospitals, the civil service, the police and the army.
As Egyptians, we have every right to be proud of these institutions, for it is these institutions that gave Egypt an edge over its neighbors in the region. However, we also have to remember that founding these institutions was not easy, nor did it come freely. We also have to remember the questions that earlier generations of Egyptians have raised about the manner in which these institutions have been founded.
More than 100 years ago, the great Muslim reformer Mohamed Abdu, reflecting on the manner in which Mehmed Ali had founded the modern Egyptian state, said, “Mehmed Ali had the army on his side, and with instinctive shrewdness he managed to get rid of all his rivals and ended up massacring the heads of the prominent households in the country. At the end, not a single head was left that could say ‘I,’ and anyone who knew his own worth either had his head chopped off or found himself exiled in the Sudan.”
Similarly, when commenting on the Massacre of the Mamluks that happened in 1811, Salama Moussa wrote in 1955 saying, “Those Mamluks were Egypt’s nobility. Had they survived, they would have formed a center of opposition to Mehmed Ali, just as the English nobility had challenged King John of England and forced him to agree to the Magna Carta in 1215.”
The modern Egyptian state, therefore, was founded with blood. While the state succeeded in eradicating the nobility and monopolizing political power by relying on the army, it never succeeded in quelling the revolutionary waves that had swept the country. Since the beginning of the 19th century, Egyptian history has witnessed a string of small rebellions, and hardly a decade passed without the country witnessing some large revolt. One can easily trace this spate of revolutions, starting from 1821 in Upper Egypt against Mehmed Ali’s agricultural policies when 4,000 people were killed, to the following year when the whole Delta erupted, to the big revolt in Monufiya in 1844, to the second Upper Egyptian Revolt of 1863, to the Oraby Revolt of 1881 to 1882, to the 1919 revolution, to the student uprisings in the 1930s, 1940s, and again in 1968 and 1970, to the Bread Riots of January 1977 and finally to the rebellion of state security officers in 1986.
The Revolution, the Officers and the Brothers
The 25 January revolution has a long history, as it belongs to a long chain of protest movements in which average Egyptians expressed their frustration and anger at their government and in which they posed some basic questions: To whom do these institutions belong? Who do they serve? And how can we make this modern state serve us instead of we serving it?
As for the social and economic elites, after they had succeeded in regrouping from within the state institutions in the mid-19th century, they tried hard to curb the power of the modern Egyptian state. However, three factors stood in the way of controlling this leviathan. First was the British occupation, which dissipated nationalist efforts between struggling for independence and striving for constitutionalism. Then there was the Arab-Israeli conflict, used by some to postpone necessary domestic political reforms. Third was the curse of oil-bolstered reactionary regimes in the region, including Mubarak’s regime, and allowed them ample breathing space and extended their lives far beyond their expiry dates.
The significance of the 25 January revolution, therefore, does not derive from being the brainchild of the Facebook generation, but rather from being an extension of a long and venerable revolutionary tradition. As for the current moment, its significance lies in its ability to reveal many of the contours of the current political landscape. The successive acquittal verdicts for police officers clearly show how keen the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is on keeping the corrupt police force intact and how adamant it is in not restructuring the entire security sector. In contrast to their ability and willingness to sacrifice the head of state, SCAF’s support of the institutions of the deep state is revealing of where its true interests lie. Given its low popularity on the streets, its lackluster military record and, above all, its lack of a political partner who can do its bidding, the SCAF generals realize their survival depends on strengthening the deep state. It is no accident, then, that their candidate is promising security, and nothing but.
As for the second flank that formed Egypt’s political scene over the past 60 years, the Muslim Brotherhood, the group was equally caught off-guard by the Mubarak trial verdict. It is true that the verdict has increased the chances of the Brotherhood’s candidate winning the second round of the presidential election, but it is not the first time since the revolution that the Brotherhood has found itself winning tactically but losing strategically. For what is the ultimate goal of acquiring posts and controlling institutions if you lack vision, if you cannot deliver and if you lose supporters? The Brotherhood, like the military, is facing an existential crisis stemming from its realization that its long historical experience has not proved useful in dealing with the current revolutionary moment.
The only force that is capable of extracting us from the present crisis is this third way whose history can be traced all the way back to the 19 century, which has ignited the 25 January revolution, and which is gaining self-confidence day after day. In contrast to other political forces that bask in past glories or that are mired licking their own wounds, this third way, which does not even have a name, face or shape, is the only force that has a vision. And as politically savvy this third way appears to be, it is its poetry – not its politics – that promises a salvation.
Khaled Fahmy is a historian and chair of the history department at the American University in Cairo.