Heba Morayef

© 2011 Platon for Human Rights Watch

Egyptians were glued to their TV screens yesterday as the trial of the deposed President Hosni Mubarak opened. Friends gathered at each other’s houses, and some coffee shops put up large screens to accommodate crowds who had risen painfully early to eat before they began fasting. Until that moment, the question on everyone’s minds had been whether Mubarak would appear in court, with a consensus that it would not happen. But there he was, on television for all to see, on a stretcher in the cage that Egyptian courts insist on retaining.

As an Egyptian and a human rights activist, I had felt pride the day the public prosecutor announced that he was investigating Mubarak on charges of killing protesters and corruption. Egyptians would not enforce mob justice against their former President, nor would they allow him to join Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia in pleasant retirement in Saudi Arabia. Mubarak would be tried by Egyptian courts, with an airing of all evidence against him and public scrutiny via live televised sessions.

Until that moment, Mubarak had been, according to all reports, languishing in his compound in Sharm el-Sheikh, under what appeared to be a deal struck with the ruling generals to ensure that their former commander-in-chief would not face the humiliation of a trial. Public suspicion about preferential treatment grew as conflicting medical assessments of his health and preparedness to stand trial emerged. Scepticism peaked after he remained in Sharm el-Sheikh despite the public prosecutor’s order to move him to Tora prison hospital, where all the other defendants were held.

At the same time, the trials of the former Interior Minister, his security chiefs and officers were not proceeding in a transparent and confidence-inspiring way. Tens of thousands of Egyptians went back to Tahrir Square on July 8, fearing a police pushback against the trials as reports of the intimidation of the families of dead protesters surfaced and the Interior Minister failed to suspend officers on trial.

Mubarak’s appearance in court calmed, for the moment, broader concerns about the slow and unsteady pace of the transition and the abuses by the military. The first session of the trial perhaps gives us new optimism that maybe, this time, Egypt would get it right. There could be no better ending to the story of Tahrir Square than a trial that shows that in the new Egypt, no one, not even a former president, is above the law. This trial could set a high bar for judicial proceedings, re-establish the credibility of the Egyptian judiciary and do full justice to the victims by ensuring a public accounting of the truth.

If done right, this trial also can reassure international observers concerned about how quickly heavy sentences were imposed on former ministers in corruption trials. It needs to take the time to establish a compelling case, detailing the evidence against Mubarak and providing him with ample opportunity to challenge it.

But this trial is also only about two days of Mubarak’s reign, January 28 and 29, when Interior Ministry forces killed 846 Egyptians. He should also be tried for his greater crimes, ruling Egypt under a state of emergency for 30 years, allowing the police to arrest and detain people without charge or trial for years on end, using torture against political detainees and ordinary criminal suspects.

No trial can ever fully address all the crimes of a head of state such as Mubarak or secure a country’s transition toward human rights and democracy. It will take years to eradicate the systematic torture and impunity that Interior Ministry forces relied on, and ensuring accountability is only one aspect of the urgently needed reforms. Mubarak weakened the judiciary through executive interference, allowed corruption to flourish, and repressed freedoms, ensuring that there were no proper political parties and that civil society was weak.

What Egypt needs in the next months is a public reckoning of this broader legacy, including strategic prosecutions and truth mechanisms. But this needs to be part of a systematic process, and not just ad hoc responses to anger on the street. It is only through investigation and prosecution of the key Interior Ministry officers who ordered, oversaw and failed to prevent torture and police abuse over the years that the law can begin to function as it should. What Egypt needs is to reverse the balance of power between the law and the police, and Mubarak’s trial is the best place to start.

Heba Fatma Morayef is a researcher for Human Rights Watch in Egypt