Mubarak’s Last Laugh?

CAIRO – August 3, 2011, will be remembered as a historic day in Egypt. Former President Hosni Mubarak was put on public trial, together with his two sons and his ex-interior minister, General Habib el-Adly. The repercussions for Egypt, indeed for the entire Arab world, will be profound.

This is not the first time that an Arab dictator has been put on trial. Saddam Hussein and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali preceded Mubarak in the dock. Hussein was tried with the help of a United States-led coalition; Ben Ali was tried and convicted in absentia, after fleeing to Saudi Arabia. But in Egypt, “It was done exclusively by Egyptians for Egypt,” as a friend put it to me. “That is why we are so proud of it.”

But the run-up to the trial was contentious. On July 29, many organizations staged a large protest in Cairo’s Tahrir to highlight the unity of Egypt’s revolutionaries (whose demands included a public trial of Mubarak). Instead, the protest exposed the dramatic polarization between Islamists and secularists since Mubarak’s ouster. Moreover, it revealed the potent capacity of Egypt’s Salafis to mobilize supporters, who were the overwhelming majority in Tahrir Square that day.

Other groups, including the leftist April 6 Youth Movement and the multi-ideological Coalition of the Revolution’s Youth, looked minute and insignificant. As a result, many secular activists ended their week-long sit-in and withdrew from Tahrir Square. Ironically, this was what the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) wanted, and it was achieved at no cost in violence or military tribunals. Chants of “islamiyya, islamiyya” (Islamic, Islamic) were enough.