I was bothered to see at least three of Egypt’s prominent newspapers highlighting Elliott Abrams’ statements to the Israeli newspaper Jerusalem Post in which he warned that sentencing Mr. Mubarak to death would be a huge mistake.
It was neither the publication of Mr. Abrams statements that bothered me nor the fact that those statements dealt a preemptive strike – typical of neo-cons – to the Egyptian judiciary, which the man warns of issuing a particular ruling even before the case is examined.
I was instead alarmed at the attention given to what the man said while not bothering to introduce him properly to the readers. The three newspapers identified him as a Middle East affairs expert, member of the American Council on Foreign Relations, and former director of Middle East affairs in the American National Security Council.
Even though Mr. Abrams did occupy those positions, what is more important is his notorious history, which has to be taken into consideration while evaluating his statements. Mr. Abrams gave false testimony in Congress in the 1980s when he was Assistant Secretary of State. At the time, he denied that the infamous Al Salvador massacre, which left 5,000 people dead, happened in the first place because the regime that carried it out was supported by the Reagan administration. Abrams also violated American law through his involvement in the Iran-contra affair and was actually convicted but later pardoned by George Bush senior. In 1997, the man was found guilty of committing perjury in front of Congress three more times. Mr. Abrams is among the most prominent extremist neo-cons and is known for defending the crimes of Israel and for his support of torture during the Bush era.
Opinions of people like Mr. Abrams should carry no weight at all, and shedding light on their history becomes helpful in understanding the purpose of what they say. The man respects neither human rights nor the law, but is just a spokesperson of many American conservatives who were alarmed by Mr. Mubarak’s trial owing to their belief that future Arab leaders will think many times before establishing close ties with the US and Israel. We have to bear this factor in mind while looking at the reactions of the West in general to the trial.
As for Egyptian reactions, which are more important, they need deeper scrutiny without accusing those who give them of treason and instead through analyzing their views. Although the majority of Egyptians instinctively realize that this trial will chart the course of Egypt’s history, two groups had a different stance: the first saw the trial as a form of gloating and revenge towards an elderly man and the second saw it as too much dwelling on the past at the expense of the future.
The first group is not all made up of “remnants’ of the former regime for it includes several of those kind-hearted people compassionate towards a man in his eighties, but compassion is something and accusations of revenge is something else. This is the first time we hear that revenge and gloating are done through going to court or that penalizing outlaws is a kind of gloating. Revenge knows no laws and gloating is a personal feeling that one might harbor but has nothing to do with the judiciary. If we agree to try juveniles, then based on what are we against the trial of the elderly?
The second group overlooks a very important fact: that building a future is never possible without turning the past’s page. Egypt did not invent this, for many people reopened the painful past–also on air by the way–and redressed the wrong before starting a new future that is to be based on justice. Trials are of extreme importance in the case of Egypt not only because they represent the just course of action that was sanctioned by God, but also because it retrieves principles that were absent during the former regime and without which no democracy is possible. In front of the whole world, Egyptians are declaring that no one is above the law even the president and that from now on everyone will be held accountable for their deeds. These are all values we badly need to re-instill.
However, trials are not enough to instill the principle of the supremacy of the law and the accountability of everyone. We will not stage a revolution every time we need to penalize a dysfunctional ruler. While the trials are taking their course, we need to think of ways of institutionalizing these principles through finding strategies that make accountability and monitoring part and parcel of the institutional plan through which the political process is run. One important factor is minimizing the powers of the president and all officials regardless of their positions because power is by definition corrupting. We also need deterrent penalties for all those who think they are above the law no matter how meager the violation could be seen.
So, trails are the first step towards turning the page of a painful past. The future will never be democratic if we do not insist on penalizing each and every person that does Egypt any wrong no matter who he or she is.
This article first appeared in Al Masry Al Youm on August 10, 2011 and was translated from Arabic by Sonia Farid