Michael Hanna writes: When the deposed former president Hosni Mubarak was wheeled on a hospital bed into the makeshift Cairo courtroom hastily prepared for his trial, the process of transitional justice in Egypt appeared to have achieved an important symbolic victory. The sight of the former autocrat laid low before a court of law to be held accountable for his actions was undoubtedly an important marker of the fundamental changes that have convulsed Egypt following its eighteen-day uprising and the fall of the Mubarak regime. After numerous court proceedings against former Mubarak advisors and confidants, the start of the trial also appeared to fulfill a central demand of the uprising: that Mubarak and his cronies face justice for their past crimes. Yet, the outsized focus on the former president and the speed with which his trial was initiated also raised troubling questions about the future scope and trajectory of transitional justice efforts, converging with broader worries about the course of Egypt’s transition.
Much like the muddled political transition overseen by Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), transitional justice has been characterized by ad hoc decision-making and suffered from a fundamental lack of transparency and popular participation. The outcome of Egypt’s extended struggle for political supremacy—parliamentary elections are due to take place in November 2011 and presidential balloting at a date still to be determined—will shape the depth and scope of transitional justice efforts. Based on the reactionary posture of the SCAF during its tenure as Egypt’s ruling authority, it is a near certainty that transitional justice efforts will remain rudimentary until such time as civilian authority is reinstated. The transition to civilian authority will provide an opportunity to revisit those areas that have been neglected during SCAF’s control. Renewed focus on justice, accountability, and equality before the law would also provide a significant link to the ethos that animated Egypt’s unexpected uprising and direct attention to those lofty goals at a time when prosaic and flawed politics are becoming the central focus of the country’s attention.
Transitional justice will be highly contested within Egyptian society. The goals of these efforts are not simply retributive, although punishment and deterrence through prosecutorial action are certainly important results. Addressing the claims of the former regime’s victims would help in establishing a credible basis for political reconciliation. The creation of an unimpeachable historical record of the excesses and abuses of the Mubarak regime would play a significant role in the difficult long-term task of forming an open and accountable political culture.
The normative value of transitional justice efforts would also have political utility if implemented judiciously, as efforts at increasing accountability for past regime crimes would be an important route to ensuring the supremacy of civilian governance and bolstering the country’s democratic infrastructure. This type of initiative could also play an important part in nurturing judicial independence as a check against future official abuse.
The Egyptian military would likely be much more comfortable with a discrete focus on the excesses of Egypt’s crony-capitalist economy and the violence associated with the repression of the January 25 uprising. The military has played a less pronounced political role in recent years, but a more probing initiative that sought to speak to the systematic crimes of the former regime and its predecessors would more directly implicate the military in light of its central role within Egypt’s authoritarian superstructure. This is particularly the case for earlier periods when Egypt could be described as a military state and society, and the military and its officer corps were implicated directly in day-to-day repression. As such, the military would be averse to broader efforts seeking to document state repression during the time of Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat, in addition to the years of Mubarak’s rule. Demonstrating credibly the repression that has characterized the Egyptian state since the Free Officers’ Movement and the toppling of King Farouk in 1952, however, would have the benefits of reinforcing the imperative to break with the past and lending legitimacy to civilian efforts to limit military interference in governance.