Large protests erupted in Cairo and in cities around Egypt Saturday as Egyptians took to the streets, angry over the historic trial of ousted President Hosni Mubarak, his sons, and former security officials.
Mr. Mubarak and Habib El Adly, his former interior minister, were sentenced to life in prison for complicity in the deaths of about 850 protesters who died during the uprising last year. But Mubarak and his two sons were acquitted on corruption charges, and six security officials also charged in the deaths of the protesters were acquitted. The judge cited lack of evidence as the reason, leaving the door wide open for an appeal and likely retrial for Mubarak and Mr. Adly.
Protesters focused their anger on the security chiefs’ exoneration, and likelihood of Mubarak and Adly’s acquittal. Because some of the security chiefs were in operational command of police forces that killed protesters, their acquittal was especially galling.
“Where is justice?” asked Nagwa Hassan, whose son Mohab Ali Hassan was shot by police during the uprising. She sat outside the compound where the trial was held, clothed in black and holding a framed picture of her son. “The ones who killed my son were judged innocent. And Mubarak’s verdict will be appealed and he will be declared innocent too. There’s no justice – this is just politics.”
The shoddy case prepared by the prosecutors highlights the lack of institutional change after the uprising in Egypt, where the president fell but his regime remained intact. The case was investigated and prosecuted by officials who had been part of his regime, and exonerated officials from a police force that has continued to kill protesters over the last year.
Many of the thousands of protesters who filled Tahrir square in Cairo Saturday night suspected the trial was simply a show put on by Egypt’s military rulers, who took over after Mubarak’s ouster and have preserved the status quo. The verdict could also affect the outcome of Egypt’s presidential race, with a runoff election just weeks away.
The Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist movement that is the most organized political force in Egypt, sought to take advantage of the anger by harnessing it in support of the group’s presidential candidate, Mohamed Morsi. Dr. Morsi won the most votes in the first round of Egypt’s first presidential race since the fall of Mubarak, and will face Ahmed Shafiq in the runoff. Mr. Shafiq, the last prime minister under Mubarak, won about 24 percent of the vote but has sparked ardent opposition for his close association with the former president. The Brotherhood is hoping those angered by the verdict, and the prospect that the old regime could get off the hook for its crimes, will back Morsi, who has vowed to see Mubarak punished.
The organization sent its members into the street as it announced its support for mass protests throughout Egypt yesterday. In a press conference Saturday evening, Morsi positioned himself as the candidate of the revolution. He slammed the verdict and said Egyptians must return to the street to keep the revolution alive against the old regime. After the press conference, he marched to Tahrir, where the group’s members and supporters greeted him with cheers.
In the square, where thousands of protesters gathered in anger Saturday night, many expressed fear that Shafiq would overturn Mubarak’s sentence if he won the race. “If Shafiq comes, he’ll declare Mubarak innocent,” said protester Tamer. He carried a poster of Shafiq, but had marked an X over the candidate’s face and taped a shoe to the cardboard. “We came to tell them we won’t allow this to happen. The revolution is still here,” he said.
But he also won’t support Morsi. “They should leave the square – they don’t care about the revolution, only about themselves,” he said. Morsi’s revolutionary words sound hollow to many of those who protested against military rule for the last year while the Brotherhood largely stayed at home. Still, some will put aside their differences for the time being. Ayman Nour, a liberal politician who ran against Mubarak in presidential elections in 2005, announced he would support Morsi after the verdict.
The judge’s criticism of the evidence gives defendants strong hope for a successful appeal. The prosecutors did not identify a single individual who they could prove had killed a protester, the judge said, and he dismissed some of the evidence that would implicate the defendants as contradictory. The verdict leaves legal analysts questioning how there was enough evidence to convict Mubarak and Adly, but not to convict officers who were in operational command of parts of the police force, including riot police. The discrepancy means the two are likely to win a retrial and possibly even an acquittal.
From the beginning, critics had cautioned that the trial was flawed. The prosecutors’ investigation and evidence was weak, reflecting not just lack of resources or capacity but also a lack of political will, says Heba Moryaef, a Cairo-based researcher for Human Rights Watch. She says that in a hearing on Jan. 4, prosecutors complained that the Ministry of Interior – the very government agency whose former leaders were on trial – was hindering the investigation. Instead of waiting so long to complain, they could have prosecuted the agency to force compliance, she says.
“At this point it looks like there was an intention to have the trial, but there was no clear attempt on the part of the prosecution to ensure that there was sufficient evidence to implicate” the defendants, she says. The verdict essentially exonerates the Ministry of Interior, reinforcing the culture of impunity in a force where abuse and excessive use of force is rife.
“It sends a very dangerous symbol moving forward because over the past year and a half protesters have continued to die at the hands of the same police force whose leaders were on trial,” she says. “That's why the verdict today is really dangerous, because it confirms the fact that you can get away with... excessive use of force.”
The corruption charges also show failings with the prosecution. The judge dismissed one case, in which Mubarak and his sons Alaa and Gamal were accused of accepting villas as bribes, because the transaction had taken place over 10 years ago, and the statute of limitations had expired. Gamal and Alaa will remain in prison on charges of insider trading. The new charges were announced just days before the trial.