As Mubarak Sits in a Cage, Egyptians are Moving On

Editor’s note: This article was originally published by The National.

A few months after the beginning of the Egyptian revolution in 2011, I was in Washington DC, addressing a group of Egyptian expatriates on the situation in Egypt.

They asked me about the trial of Hosni Mubarak – a trial that I thought, at the time, might not even take place. When they asked me if it should happen, I paused, thought about some consequences that had little to do with the justice involved in such a trial, and replied “no”.

The response was lively and engaging, as it would have been anywhere Egyptians gathered.

But this week, as a new trial started – and just as quickly stopped, with the presiding judge recusing himself – the most intriguing development is that very few people seem to care about it.

I answered “no” to the question in 2011 because I thought the powers that be would never let Mr Mubarak take the stand freely, for fear that he might spill the beans about many state and international secrets. I thought counter-revolutionary actors might start all sorts of trouble to forestall a trial, and that, I believed, would be counterproductive for Egypt.

A brutal autocratic dictator he may have been, but I did not think he was worth the trouble a trial would bring, particularly as he seemed likely – at 82 and sickly – to meet his maker soon in any case.

Two years later, Egypt has moved on from Mubarak. Most Egyptians, whether for him or against him, do not appear to be particularly engaged in the process of his new trial. They are being kept busy with other matters. If they are interested in politics, it will be in the failings of Mohammed Morsi’s government, the inept nature of the opposition, the machinations of the “deep state” and its supporters or the inability of the revolutionary camp to translate lofty ideals into practical plans.

That last aspect of the political arena is probably the most striking when it comes to Mubarak. The revolutionaries fought, obviously, for his overthrow. But they also wanted the restructuring of the entire Egyptian state. Not only have they not seen that so far, but the revolution for which they continue to fight has been forgotten by many who initially supported it.

Indeed, for many, it is “politics as usual” – government versus opposition, and so on. Many who were in Tahrir Square in those brave days are now attacking revolutionaries who did not vote for Ahmad Shafiq in the presidential elections – the same Ahmad Shafiq whom Mubarak appointed prime minister at the height of the uprising.

That cannot be simply dismissed or swept under the rug. The reality is that many who dreamt that the revolution would bring about sweeping changes by now have been bitterly disappointed, and now consider that Mr Shafiq might have been the lesser evil after all.

It is difficult to square any support for the revolution with support for such a counter-revolutionary, who would have crushed the Tahrir uprising in its infancy if given the chance, and who calledMubarak his “role model” even after the revolt.

A year ago, at the Egyptian-American Chamber of Commerce in Cairo, Mr Shafiq said he would use executions to restore order to Egypt, and would provide Omar Suleiman, the infamous and brutal head of military intelligence, with a job if a suitable one could be found.

All of that is now forgotten – forgotten in large part because Mr Shafiq never had the opportunity to make good on any of those plans, and also in large part because the victor, Mr Morsi, has been an utter disappointment to the overwhelming majority of Egyptians.

A year after Mr Morsi’s victory, the fact that Mr Shafiq represented a full return to Mubarak’s system has been left by the wayside by many who fought against that system – because Mr Morsi’s government has proven to be so unsatisfactory.

As I passed Mubarak’s military hospital on the day his new trial was to have begun, I saw a small crowd of his supporters outside.

I found this demonstration ironic, considering that under Mubarak such a protest, in defence of someone so clearly unsupportive of the ruling regime, would never have been allowed.

More than that, however, it was to me downright bizarre that there was a crowd there – and that passers-by were waving in support. It was not support for Mubarak I sensed, but rather opposition to Mr Morsi, and to the desperate economic situation that Egyptians now find themselves living in.

There is another way to look at this, however. Perhaps the biggest irony is that a Morsi government is actually a strategic win for the revolution, in spite of Mr Morsi.

Had Mr Morsi not been elected, he would not be in power to show the Egyptian nation how utterly bankrupt the Muslim Brotherhood is. Under a Shafiq government, the Muslim Brotherhood’s popularity would probably have broken all records by now.

Under Mr Morsi, Mr Shafiq’s supporters do exist and may even increase in number. But really no non-Brotherhood leader could reveal the policy impoverishment of the Brotherhood project better than Mr Morsi is doing.

Mubarak may think he has been proven right (and judging by the smug grins in court this week, he does). But in the end it is he who is in a cage. Egyptians are now free to take on not only him and his system, but also the Brotherhood – a struggle that had to happen at some point, if only to show that Egypt has other options, better than either the Brotherhood or a return to dictatorship and autocracy.