There will be three impacts for the decision by a court this week to overturn President Mubarak’s—and former Interior Minister Habib El-Adly’s—life sentences and retry them. First, the new trials will stir up new confrontations between supporters of the former president and activist groups, especially those attached to the hundreds who died during the uprising. The confrontations are likely to be limited. But the timing could trigger wider complications. As the trial proceeds during the campaigning for the coming parliamentary election—arguably the most important milestone in the current political transition—it will be used by different groups, in the ruling side as well as the opposition, to inflame feelings and mobilize voters. This could cause conflicts in a society that is already disenchanted with the political process, with two years of intense fluidity, and is increasingly very distressed by acute economic conditions, and the prospect of more difficulties in the near future.
Second, the trial is a signal in the hugely important political confrontation currently taking place between, on one side, the economic and financial power centers that have entrenched themselves in the last decade of President Mubarak’s reign, and, on the other, the economic elites that have been rising in Egypt in the last 18 months. The interests of the former are immense; the ambitions of the latter are enormous. This confrontation remains at a nascent stage. The coming parliamentary election will be an important episode in this confrontation, because the next parliament will have very wide legislative powers on regulations and frameworks that will shape very lucrative economic sectors and industries. As the old economic powers try to preserve the most important of their interests and the new players attempt to grab market shares, both will seek to widen their political coalitions. And influencing street sentiments is a perfect vehicle for that. President Mubarak’s retrial will offer a golden opportunity.
And third, President Mubarak’s fate will be the finale of the dramatic story of the first Egyptian Republic—and of course the final act of his own political career, which is much more complicated than is currently portrayed in local and international media. Mubarak represents the last of the Pharaonic leaders of Egypt who ruled supreme relying on unquestioning loyalty from the sprawling and highly influential institutions of the old Egyptian state. Mubarak also represents the last episode of the overt control of the military establishment over the country. And he is the last Egyptian leader to rule the country with a mind-set anchored in the post Second-World-War period. He is the last in the thread that connected Nasser’s macro socio-political project in the 1960s, with Sadat transformations in the 1970s, to the last three decades. What followed—and will follow—is/will be a jump into a new phase; the six decades from the 1950s to the end of the first decade of the twenty first century (the life of the first Egyptian republic) exerts a major influence on the future, but does not mould it.
To a very large extent, the future will be a function of the behavior of a gigantic, and uncontrolled, eruption of bottom-up energy, fuelled by the aspirations, wills, and desires of over 45-million Egyptians under 35 years old, bent on changing the different crippling failures they have inherited. Dying in prison or as a free man, President Mubarak will not impact the flow or direction of this energy, but his fate—the final scene in the story of the first republic—will shape the background of the theatre in which this energy is unleashed.
Tarek Osman is the author of Egypt on the Brink: From Nasser to Mubarak. The first edition of the book was published by Yale University Press in 2010 and was translated to Arabic, Dutch, French, and Japanese. Osman’s writing has appeared or been cited in the Economist, Guardian, Independent, Financial Times, Foreign Affairs, and Boston Globe among many other publications.