Recently, Arab dictators have not had it easy. Through popular uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa, we saw two autocrats toppled in Tunisia and Egypt and one is on the way out in Yemen. One maniacal leader has lost legitimacy and settled for civil war in Libya, and the Syrian regime is on the brink of elimination. Add to that a crushed revolt in Bahrain and the clampdown of dissidents in Morocco, and the reasons for headaches keep accumulating for the despots of the region.
The stakes have just been raised again. Egyptian prosecutors, encouraged by the Egyptian people, have set a court date of August 3 for former President Hosni Mubarak and his sons to stand trial for corruption and the killing of protesters during Egypt’s revolution. The former president could face the death penalty if found guilty.
For the good of the region and its march toward liberty, however, it would be wrong to try and execute Mubarak. A guilty conviction sends a message to Egypt’s despotic neighbors that relinquishing control is not a viable option; even if they bow out relatively quietly, they may face deadly vengeance at the hands of their people.
If this trial proceeds as planned, Arab autocrats will act out of even greater desperation to cling to power. It will be far more unlikely for Syrian President Bashar al-Asad or Col. Muammar Gaddafi to give up control over their countries knowing that it could mean death in the end anyway.
Not only does this show Arab dictators why not to cede authority, it also shows them how to hold on to power. Thanks to the “success” of the violent Saudi Arabian-led incursion into Bahrain in March and the subsequent crackdown on Shi’a protesters, Arab leaders such as al-Asad, Gaddafi, or even Morocco King Mohammed VI are getting the message that the road to power hinges on stubbornness and tenacity, not mercy and understanding.
And why should they see it otherwise when even the Egyptian people lack mercy and forgiveness? The Mubarak trial is about revenge for the killing of hundreds of protesters and retribution for three decades of corrupt leadership. But the price for this “justice” is too high, for it means the likely death or detention of thousands more Arabs, from Morocco to Bahrain.
Egyptians have to forgive Mubarak for their decades-long economic stagnation, lack of free and fair elections, and the countless arbitrary detentions. They must move on and continue the work that is needed toward true democracy in the coming months. This trial will prove to be a mere distraction for Egyptians seeking political freedom, but for millions of Syrians and Libyans, it could cost them theirs.
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