What Does the Mubarak Trial Mean for the 'Arab Spring?'

What effect will the Mubarak trial have on an Arab world not used to seeing its dictators in a cage?

Contact Editor
David Lev,

Mubarak on Trial
Mubarak on Trial
Screenshot Egypt TV

Six months after he was deposed after controlling his country for a longer period that any other modern ruler elsewhere, former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak went on trial Wednesday for a series of crimes, including being responsible for the the death of protesters in the demonstrations that led to his resignation, and for stealing billions of dollars from the Egyptian treasury.

Egyptian television broadcast via satellite what quickly became a top-rated program throughout the entire Arab world. A bedridden Mubarak, laying semi-prone inside a cage, denied the charges “categorically,” he told the court. Mubarak is being tried alongside his sons Gamal and Alaa, who also denied culpability in the looting of the country's Treasury.

Wednesday's pre-trial motions were held in order to allow the Mubaraks to enter their pleas. The trial itself will begin on August 15. Hosni Mubarak will remain in a Cairo hospital, being treated for a number of debilitating conditions he is suffering from, including, according to rumors, cancer. Mubarak had been hospitalized in Sharm el-Sheikh until the trial.

Commentators in the Arab world were divided on what the eventual upshot of the trial would be. The sight of the 83 year old former dictator behind bars in bed – in a most demeaning physical situation, most commentators agreed – contrasted sharply with the man most Egyptians, as well as other Arabs, had known as unquestioned ruler of Egypt for over four decades.  While some felt that the trial would advance the cause of democracy in the Arab world, others were less sure – saying that it could have the opposite effect. Speaking to Western reporters 2,9-year-old Salah Abu Samera from Ramallah said that the trial was a positive sign. "It's unusual in the Arab world," he said. "This is the first time we see a leader in a real court. This is good for democracy, good for the future." Hussain Abdulla, 23, a human rights activist in Bahrain, was quoted in the New York Times as saying that “Everybody is watching from all parts of the society, young and old, pro-democracy or pro-government. Of course all the people who are pro-democracy are happy with it and it gives them a push to continue struggling.”

But the sentiment in the Arab world was not all positive; so far Mubarak, along with former Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, have been the only “victims” of the so called “Arab spring.” There are major uprisings going in at least three other Arab countries right now – Syria, Libya, and Yemen – and a more sporadic uprising in Bahrain. There have also been major protests against governments in Morocco, Jordan, and Algeria. And, of course, going beyond the Arab world, Iranians have attempted on occasion to revolt against their radical Islamist regime.

At least one analyst, Bessama Mormani of the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Ont., believes that the Mubarak trial may actually make things more difficult for protesters in other countries – and distance the possibility of democracy. Writing in the Globe and Mail, she says that “while Syria’s protest movements and opposition groups may be emboldened to take to the streets by watching the most popular of Egyptian soap operas, the trial of Hosni Mubarak and his cronies, the Assad regime will internalize this zero-sum game as a choice: be put in a prison cage for the world’s cameras, or crush the protesters without fear of impunity.

“For the helpless civilians of Hama, Homs and other cities who dare challenge Mr. al-Assad’s authority, they will feel the wrath of the unintended consequences of the lessons learned from Mr. Mubarak’s trial.” What applies in Syria applies in all other Arab countries, she adds; no Arab leader wants to see himself on trial, in a cage.