Egypt's Mubarak Trial Result Sparks New Wave of Protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square

CAIRO – Tahrir Square closed to traffic Saturday, as protesters trickled in during the hottest part of the day. By nightfall, numbers swelled to the tens of thousands chanting for the fall of military rule and the cleansing of the judiciary. Groups of disgruntled citizens gathered spontaneously here and in squares across the country in response to the sentencing of deposed President Hosni Mubarak, his sons and his closest associates.

The civilian court that first brought charges against Mubarak more than a year ago announced its decision yesterday morning in a makeshift courtroom on the outskirts of Cairo secured by tanks and thousands of soldiers. Mubarak, 84, and former Interior Minister Habib al Adly, 74, were convicted and sentenced to a term of life imprisonment for complicity in the murder of protesters during the first week of anti-government protests last January.

Charges of bribery and inappropriate use of influence were dropped against Mubarak, his sons Gamal and Alaa, and business mogul Hussein Salem (who fled to Spain during the revolution and was tried in abstentia). Gamal and Alaa have been charged separately with stock market manipulation and are being held pending trial.

Six of Adly’s former subordinates from the Ministry of Interior—the chiefs of various security divisions—were also acquitted on charges of complicity in killing protesters and damaging public and private property by failing to provide security during the uprising.

Immediately following the sentencing, the bed-ridden Mubarak was transferred to the hospital at Tora prison in southern Cairo. His room there has been refitted (allegedly to cater to his deteriorating health) at the cost to the Egyptian government of $828,000. His lawyers have announced their intention to appeal his conviction, and given the many irregularities of the trial, legal experts suggest they have firm legal footing to overturn the ruling.

The trial and its conclusion have stirred the anger and frustration of many Egyptians who were seeking justice for those killed during the revolution and a degree of closure on the Mubarak regime, which now seems weakened but still functioning.

The sight of Mubarak and his cronies behind bars in the Egyptian courtroom’s traditional defendant’s cage soothed many people’s initial craving for retribution. But for those who were expecting the former iron-fisted dictator to be given the death penalty and his associates to be imprisoned, yesterday’s ruling was not just a disappointment but an affront to justice and the revolution.

In his announcement of the sentences, Judge Ahmed Refaat attributed the acquittals to the lack of convincing evidence presented by the prosecution. Recordings of telephone conversations between Mubarak and Adly discussing how to respond to the protests were allegedly destroyed, while some documents were not made available by the government and witness testimonies were cut short by the judge’s abrupt decision to close the trail in early January 2012.

In the wake of the unpopular ruling, some are calling for a retrial of the former head of state. How could Mubarak and Adly be the only ones responsible for the killing of protesters, ask many Egyptians, and why is the evidence of their crimes not more accessible? Appeals are all but certain, and lawyers will likely raise other cases against Mubarak and his top aides.

Perhaps in the years to come justice will be achieved for the victims of crimes committed by Mubarak’s government. For now, protests in the streets and conversations in cafes reveal a lack of faith in the yet unreformed judiciary and the ineffectiveness of the formal legal system in satisfying the public’s demand for justice.

Popular dissatisfaction with the judiciary threatens the integrity of a state institution for the second time in one week. Protests erupted last weekend in response to the victory of former Mubarak minister Ahmed Shafiq and Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi in the first round of presidential elections.

Despite broad acceptance that the elections were free and fair, many people who voted for another candidate rejected the results. Egypt’s recent history of political corruption leads many to regard the elections and the trial as nothing more than means to an end. If the results are not satisfactory, the people will find another way to achieve their goals.

The effect of the Mubarak trial and the ensuing protests on the presidential runoff elections later this month is still unclear. The sentencing may be the final push that some undecided voters needed to vote against a return of Shafiq and the former regime, but the resulting protests could push others concerned with security and stability to support the old guard. A restitution of the emergency law that was suspended by parliament on Thursday and postponement of the elections is unlikely but cannot be ruled out.