First Things First

Hosni Mubarak deserves to be on trial, but the Egyptian people can't eat transitional justice.


The arrest of Hosni Mubarak and the detention of the fallen Egyptian dictator’s sons, Gamal and Alaa, and many of the senior officials of his government are being hailed in Egypt as a watershed moment. Such elation bordering on wonder is entirely appropriate in a country where even public criticism of the Mubarak regime once frequently led to arrest in conditions very different from the relatively benign ones the Mubaraks are now experiencing. (Unlike their opponents, they are not likely to be tortured, as dissidents have routinely been in Egypt.) Only the Muslim Brotherhood, it seems, has shied away from fully joining the general euphoria, with the tone being set by one of its prominent figures, parliamentarian Mohamed Beltagy, who would go no further than to say the arrests are “a step in the right direction.”

Beltagy is almost certainly being a bit ungenerous, which, in all likelihood, reflects the Brotherhood’s ambivalence about a democratic upheaval in which it played a comparatively minor role — and which, in addition to dethroning Mubarak, dethroned it as the principal opposition to his regime. The situation in Egypt has been extremely volatile since demonstrators first started massing in Cairo’s Tahrir Square at the end of January. But the fact that the Egyptian military permitted the arrest of Mubarak is an astonishing tribute to the power of the democracy movement before which, it seems, the general staff is willing to bend to a wholly unexpected degree. It would have been one thing to arrest Gamal Mubarak, who, according to a 2008 U.S. Embassy cable revealed by WikiLeaks, would not have been accepted by the military as his father’s successor. But it is quite another for the military to acquiesce in the arrest of his father, one of their own, a man who was their former commander in chief before he was their president.

One of the central facts of the democratic upheaval in the Maghreb and the rest of the Arab Middle East is that it is wholly homegrown, unlike, say, Eastern Europe in 1989, where democracy was first and foremost the result of changes in Moscow. (The only outsiders who have seemed properly alert to this are a few activists who have had a role in both sets of events.) But if the Arab revolutions have quite properly engendered enormous hope and enthusiasm around the world, some of that enthusiasm has been marred intellectually — and, one might even argue, morally — by a common assumption that Tunis and Cairo in 2011 will, in large measure, recapitulate Prague and Budapest in 1989. Again, this should not be surprising: Human rights and democracy activists are no different from generals in their tendency to fight the last war over again. But in allowing visions of Eastern Europe in 1989 to play too big a role in their analysis, these foreign supporters risk attaching too much importance to events in Egypt and Tunisia that seem to follow the old Eastern European democratization script and too little to challenges that, in the contemporary Arab context, may be far more central.

Lest it be forgotten, these foreign supporters are often either officials of Western governments in a position to help secure the large aid packages and debt rescheduling that Egypt and Tunisia need so desperately or members of nongovernmental groups in a position to influence such decisions. There is nothing new about this. The not-so-secret reality of aid, whether in emergencies, for development, or to buttress fledgling democracies, has always been that it reflects the priorities and concerns of those who give it, as well as the needs of those who are its beneficiaries. Some philanthropic NGOs are quite straightforward about this, as in the case of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, one of whose self-declared first principles is that its work reflects “the interests and passions of the Gates family.” But it is true of donor governments and of the Bretton Woods institutions to a far greater degree than they usually care to admit.

At the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century, one of those ruling passions is international justice. And already a number of conferences on accountability and democracy are being held or will soon be convened in Tunisia and Egypt.

An emblematic instance of this was “Addressing the Past, Building the Future,” organized by Tunisian human rights advocates and the International Center for Transitional Justice (its major donors include the Sigrid Rausing Trust and George Soros’s Open Society Foundations) and held in Tunis on April 14. In its email to supporters describing what happened at the conference, the ICTJ used the phrase “No True Democracy Without Justice” as the subject line.

In Eastern Europe in 1989, the road to democracy really did pass through truth commissions, lustration laws, and palaces of justice, though as the case of a Hungary ruled by a democratically elected, extreme-right government shows, democracy and decency are hardly always identical. But will this be the case in Egypt and Tunisia? Despite the overheated hyperbole of groups like the ICTJ, the most one can safely say is that it is too soon to tell. Again, this is not to say that justice and accountability should have no place under a new, democratic dispensation. If it can be done without endangering the broader gains of the revolution (say, by provoking an army crackdown), then bringing leaders like Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Mubarak to account — not just for decades of corrupt practices, but for having ordered the torture and killing of opponents during the long years of their rule and of demonstrators as their regimes began to topple — should be a matter for Egyptians and Tunisians to decide.

But despite George Santayana’s asinine injunction about those who forget the past being condemned to repeat it, there is little likelihood that the Arab revolutions of 2011 will recapitulate those of the Warsaw Pact countries in 1989 in making justice and accountability the central determinant of success or failure. This is because the nature and the gravity of the challenges democrats in Egypt and Tunisia face are very different from those that confronted their Eastern European opposite numbers 22 years ago. Starkly put, though there was much political oppression in Eastern Europe in the 1980s, the standard of living of all but a few people (the Roma first and foremost) was infinitely higher than that of the poor of the Arab Middle East. But it remains to be seen whether considering poverty alleviation as much of a priority as justice will fit the “interests and passions” of Western donors or, for that matter, the middle-class Egyptians who deserve most of the credit for deposing Mubarak. To use a Marxist analytic frame, these middle-class activists have their own class interests, which do not necessarily coincide with those of the poor.

The underexamined heart of the matter is this: The most relevant fact for the majority of the inhabitants of countries like Egypt and Tunisia is not that they have been governed by tyrants but that they live in crushing poverty — an immiseration that has grown progressively worse for at least the bottom two deciles of the population over the past 20 years. Abolishing Mubarak’s party, confiscating its funds, and even putting him, his sons, and his cronies on trial will literally do nothing to alleviate this.

This is not to say that the trial would serve no purpose or be of no benefit to middle-class Egyptians, who comprised the overwhelming majority of the demonstrators in Tahrir Square. But one does not have to embrace Bertolt Brecht’s cynical Fressenmoral, the morality of the stomach, with its dour insistence on “first grub, then ethics,” to see that both the Egyptians who brought down Mubarak and their foreign supporters seem well on their way to embracing, however unconsciously, an equally questionable oversimplification — in this case, “first ethics [i.e., democracy and justice], then grub.”

But such a progression is anything but dependable, and unless democratic change is succeeded very quickly by palpable economic improvement for the poor, the fall of the tyrant will be cold comfort indeed for the majority of Egyptians. Economists will tell you that democracy is quick, but development takes time. The problem is that there is no time, and those who fret about the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, despite the fact that the organization was a latecomer to the anti-Mubarak surge, should remember that one of the principal reasons that the Brotherhood commands the loyalty of so many poor Egyptians is due to the fact that it has consistently provided many of the social services that the state failed to provide. So far, at least, the rhetoric of the pro-democracy groups has been heavily focused on politics, including, centrally, the issues of justice and accountability, while remaining rather light on questions of economic development.

In Peter Brook’s staging of Marat/Sade, the only truly great modern play about revolution, there is the line: “The revolution came and went/And unrest was replaced by discontent.” If the Arab democracy activists and those who are trying to support them do not modify their approach radically — that is to say, put jobs and health care at its center, attaching at least as much importance to these as political reform and justice — the same fate almost surely awaits the Arab Spring. We see signs of this in the boats laden with young jobless Tunisians that are now arriving ceaselessly in Italy. And of course Tunisia is small when compared with Egypt. Theirs is the judgment on the course of the revolution in the Maghreb and the Arab Middle East. The trial of Hosni Mubarak, if it ever happens, will be a comparatively minor affair by comparison.

David Rieff is the author, most recently, of "In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and Its Ironies."

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