Ex-Presidents' Trials Are Not More Than Side Shows

So far, this has been a banner year for former presidents put on trial in their own countries, often after a spectacular fall from political grace. We have seen former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and sons caged and forcefully denying charges leveled at them. Soon. another trial will open in the blighted state of Ivory Coast for its former leader, Laurent Gbagbo, and his wife, both having been charged earlier this week with embezzlement. Yet, in Egypt and the Ivory Coast these trials will change little, providing some theatre and some relief, but remaining virtually irrelevant. 

Egypt currently faces great socio-economic issues, including chronic unemployment, sectarian strife, institutionalized corruption, and an opaque political process. When a country is currently struggling to find ways to feed a population that is projected to grow to 150 million people by 2045, this trial can be deemed inconsequential to Egypt’s future, even if it provides short-term accountability of those involved in attempting to suppress the Egyptian Revolution.

Equally, since the election of November 2010, Ivory Coast has been in a state of civil war. The fighting necessitated foreign (mostly French) intervention to break the stalemate, leading to Gbagbo’s arrest. The civil war has now somewhat abated, but the country is still left with a legacy of conflict, deep poverty, social inequity, and a broken political system. GDP per capita hovers at $1,700, leaving many Ivorians surviving on less than $2.50 a day. Although, once perceived as one of the most developed countries in Africa, Ivory Coast is now in need of reconstruction, not a trial.

Importantly, there are current concerns in both countries about the accountability of the trials. In Egypt, the live TV feed has now been removed and proceedings will not be reported in the same way, which is a setback in a country that has a questionable judicial system. In Ivory Coast, on the other hand, there are fears of political reprisals and revenge through the court system on previous supporters of the regime, regardless of whether any crime was committed. 

Additionally, in both Ivory Coast and Egypt, it is impossible to predict whether the trial of their former strongmen has left the door open for reform and participatory government. After all, Mubarak was once just an air force general while Gbagbo was a pro-democracy activist who won power from a dictator. Therefore, history might repeat itself with President Allassane Ouattara or Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Historical precedent shows that the chances that a trial will solve deep-rooted issues is unlikely. Saddam Hussein’s trial was an orchestrated farce, former Haitian President Baby Doc Duvalier voluntarily returned to face trial for publicity reasons, and Milosevic died during his ICTY trial. 

After all, once former presidents, like Mubarak or Gbagbo, are on trial they become largely irrelevant figures, shorn of power, but the actual state of the countries they once governed remains the same. Thus, we should not be deluded into thinking that trials with some bright lights and tough questions will cure nations of their ills overnight. They are placebos, providing cosmetic makeup to hide the ugly scars left on the countries concerned, scars that will take years or decades to heal. 

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