Death penalty for Egypt's Mubarak: How will that play with the tin-pot despot set?

Egypt's former president Mubarak could face the death penalty in his trial. In Africa, several authoritarian leaders have ruled for decades, and harsh sentences could encourage them to cling to power by any means.

Khalil Hamra/AP
Egyptian anti-Mubarak protesters demonstrate outside a courtroom in Cairo, Thursday. The prosecutor in the Mubarak trial demanded the death penalty on Thursday for the ousted Egyptian leader on charges of complicity in the killing of protesters during last year's uprising against his rule.

Egypt’s long-ruling former President Hosni Mubarak may face the death penalty if found guilty in his ongoing trial in Cairo. Mr. Mubarak is accused of ordering the killing of protesters during the Tahrir Square demonstrations that ultimately led to the downfall of his government in February.

Sending Mubarak to the gallows may feel like a good signal to send to strong-man leaders – that their misdeeds in office will be judged, and judged harshly, in courts of law.

But history shows that hard sentencing for bad leaders can sometimes backfire.

For every leader who steps down peacefully after a few terms in office on the African continent, there are many others who take the president-for-life package. Some, especially those who rose to power by leading armed independence movements, remember the brutal death of late Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, and plan to stay in power as a way to stay alive. Others look at the prosecution of former Liberian President Charles Taylor and the expected trial of former Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo on human rights charges at The Hague, and worry that they too could face a lifetime in prison.

According to leaked diplomatic cables posted by Wikileaks, Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe “genuinely fears ‘hanging’ if he leaves office,” and thus has little incentive to withdraw from politics. Mr. Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe for 32 years.

In December 2010, the Monitor reported that investigators had discovered evidence that supporters of Kenya’s former Higher Education Minister William Ruto planned a fresh wave of organized mass violence to prevent their leader from being arrested for his alleged role in orchestrating post-election violence in 2008. The 2008 round of violence played out along ethnic lines, and killed some 1,300 people and displaced 300,000. Mr. Ruto, along with five other prominent Kenyans, have now been formally charged and await trial at the International Criminal Court at The Hague, Netherlands.

Most African leaders have nothing to worry about, having served their countries capably and in some cases admirably. Sudanese cell-phone billionaire Mo Ibrahim has even created a prize for those African leaders who perform well, and who step down after two terms in office, and Boston University has set up an African Leaders president-in-residence program, to allow retiring African presidents with a graceful departure from office.

But in a continent where power has all too often been obtained from the barrel of a gun, there are plenty of leaders who would appear to have reason to fret about the nosy intervention of international courts. Some leaders – like former Ethiopian President Mengistu, now in exile in Zimbabwe, and Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir, who is facing an ICC arrest warrant for genocide but can travel throughout much of Africa – rely on the kindness of fellow African leaders who resent The Hague’s interference. Others, like Charles Taylor or Chad's former President Hissene Habre, are abandoned by their counterparts, perhaps when their usefulness has run out.

What’s the solution? Some Africans argue that leaders should face justice at home. Others, including a majority of Kenyans, place greater trust in international courts than their own domestic ones, which they regard as either inadequate to the task or hopelessly compromised and corrupt.

What this means is that each of Africa’s 54 countries will have to come up with its own solution. And if African leaders continue to remain in power, disregarding the opinion of their own citizens, they will have to hope that their own people are kinder to them in their final days than the Libyan people were to Muammar Qaddafi.

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