Egypt: Mubarak verdict cuts both ways but may be a wash politically
Jun 4, 2012Posted by Gregory Aftandilian
The recent verdict against former president Hosni Mubarak, in which he was found guilty of complicity in the murder of hundreds of Egyptians during the January-February 2011 revolution and given a life sentence, has generated heated controversy among many revolutionary activists in Egypt because they believe he should have been given the death penalty. The acquittal of Mubarak's sons on corruption charges (though they remain in prison on insider trading charges) have added to the activists' anger. However, the fact that Mubarak and his interior minister were sentenced to life in prison is a milestone and shows that the Egyptian judicial system has indeed changed from how it acted during the Mubarak era. Both Egyptian presidential candidates, by their different assessments of the verdict, are using it for political purposes to broaden their appeal but it is unlikely that they will be able to exploit it to their advantage.
For the revolutionary activists, the verdict against Mubarak as well as other judicial rulings were unsatisfactory. Not only was Mubarak and his interior minister not found directly responsible for the deaths of protestors in January-February 2011, but that six senior police officials were acquitted of ordering the killing of protestors. Even though Mubarak and his interior minister, Habib Al-Adli were sentenced to life in prison for complicity in protestors' deaths, that was not enough for the activists. They clearly wanted Mubarak, Al-Adli, and the police officials to be found directly responsible for the protestors' deaths and given the death penalty.
Sensing an opportunity, Muslim Brotherhood presidential candidate Mohammed Mursi tried to ride the tide of this anger by stating: "If I am chosen [president], I will directly initiate a criminal investigation to identify evidence against those who killed revolutionists, those who caused corruption and those who robbed the nation...I repeat, I am with the revolution and I will continue to be, even after I become president." Although Mursi was trying to seize the revolutionary mantle and broaden his appeal outside of the 24 percent of the vote that he received in the first round of the presidential elections, it is unclear how far this message will take him. As a self-described anti-establishment candidate, Mursi is hoping that Egyptian citizens will see him as someone who will safeguard the revolution, but many are not buying it. One activist who came to Tahrir Square to protest the verdicts told the Washington Post that the Muslim Brothers "are trying to buy the votes of the revolutionaries by standing on their side, but if it was not in their best interest, they would have remained as quiet as always."
Mursi's opponent, former prime minister and former air force commander Ahmed Shafik, also seeing an opportunity, tried to seize the high ground by stating that he respects the verdict against Mubarak, adding that it means that "there is no one in Egypt who is any longer above the law and cannot be held accountable." Shafik clearly wanted to distance himself from his past associations (and praise of) Mubarak by showing that he was cognizant of the new Egypt and was not going to turn the clock back to the Mubarak era, as many fear. It is highly unlikely that the revolutionaries will buy his message, but Shafik's targeted audience is not that segment of the population; rather, the audience is the secular-liberals who want a changed Egypt but one not dominated by the Brotherhood. By showing that he respects the new Egypt (where a deposed president can be sentenced to life in prison) Shafik is trying to say that he is not beholden to his former mentor or his regime and is not going to replicate it. Although many secular-liberals still have strong reservations about Shafik, the more presidential he sounds, and the more respect he shows to the new Egypt, the better chance he will have to get at least some of their votes.
And then there is the so-called silent majority, which many in Egypt describe as "people of the couch." These are Egyptians who did not take to the streets in 2011 and want a return to normalcy, albeit with less repression than in the Mubarak era. For these people, representing perhaps a majority of the citizens, whether Mubarak was deemed directly responsible for the killing of protestors last year or was merely complicit in their deaths is a moot point. They are probably in awe that the judiciary handed down a life sentence to their former president and are not upset that Mubarak did not get the death penalty. What they want first and foremost is a functioning government, an improved economy, and a crackdown on crime. Shafik certainly hopes that many of them will turn out to vote for him in the second round of the presidential elections. His projection of a strongman image, in fact, is designed to appeal directly to them, but that is not enough to win because he cannot count on them to vote in large numbers. Hence, Shafik needs to appeal to the secular-liberals who want a more democratic Egypt, and that is why he is now trying to sound like a reformer.
While the Mubarak verdict has made a splashy news story and has brought some revolutionary activists to the streets, the outcome of the presidential election will not likely hinge on this verdict. Rather, the election will depend on which candidate will be able to muster a coalition larger than his opponent. Each of the two candidates has liabilities--Mursi because he represents a fundamentalist movement now seen as trying to monopolize political life in Egypt; Shafik because he represents in large part the old regime. In building their coalitions, they must also try to shed these images as best as they can while they appeal to the voters.The views expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for National Policy.
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