CAIRO — The long-awaited verdict in Egypt's "trial of the century"— a life sentence for ousted president Hosni Mubarak and acquittals for most other defendants — has brought the people back to Cairo's Tahrir Square. The controversial court rulings come at a time of extraordinary domestic political upheaval, with Egypt's first free presidential runoff only ten days away.
|A protester shouts during a demonstration at Tahrir square in Cairo, against the verdict for deposed leader Mubarak. Reuters|
"The contentious Mubarak verdict has aggravated an already tense political situation," Mohamed Sami, head of the nationalist Karama ('Dignity') Party, told IPS. "Egypt's short-term political future will likely be determined by the scope and intensity of the coming wave of demonstrations."
On Saturday (Jun. 2), a Cairo criminal court issued its ruling in the months-long trial of Mubarak, who — along with his long-time interior minister Habib al-Adli and six of the latter's assistants— had been charged with the murder of some 850 unarmed protesters during last year's Tahrir Square uprising.
The verdict came as a surprise: life in prison for Mubarak and al-Adli, while the latter's six assistants were acquitted of all charges.
In a second ruling delivered the same day, Mubarak and his two sons —Alaa and Gamal — along with fugitive business tycoon Hussein Salam (who had played a key role in Egypt's recently canceled gas-export deal with Israel), were all acquitted of multiple corruption charges.
Pro-revolution political forces blasted the rulings, saying that Mubarak and al-Adli deserved nothing less than execution. What's more, the exoneration of al-Adli's assistants, critics charge, will make it easy for the ousted president and his former minister to appeal their sentences.
"Life sentences for Mubarak and al-Adli had been expected in order to placate a public hungry for justice," said Ahmed Maher, general coordinator of the April 6 youth movement, which played a prominent role in last year's uprising.
"But both men will certainly appeal the verdicts," Maher told IPS. "They might even be exonerated of charges of ordering the killing of protesters, given that al-Adli's assistants — who presumably carried out those orders — were themselves acquitted."
He added: "The acquittal of al-Adli's assistants also sends a signal to the police that they can continue to murder political protesters with impunity."
Within hours of the verdict, thousands of protesters had converged on Cairo's Tahrir Square to denounce the rulings and demand justice for the '"martyrs" of last year's popular uprising. The following day (Monday), tens of thousands turned out to the flashpoint square to demand the defendants' retrial and the dismissal of Egypt's longstanding prosecutor-general.
The latest round of demonstrations comes at a time of exceptional political uncertainty in Egypt, which is now midway through its first post-Mubarak presidential election.
A first-round vote late last month yielded unanticipated results, with Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi coming in first with 25 percent of the vote and Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak's last prime minister, coming in second with 24 percent. The two men are now slated to face off in a hotly-contested runoff vote on Jun. 16/17.
The surprising new electoral equation pitting the Brotherhood — which controls almost half the seats in parliament — against a former Mubarak regime official has also served to bring protesters back to the square.
"The current Tahrir Square protests aren't only the result of the Mubarak verdicts, but also of the ongoing presidential election, which will put voters between the Muslim Brotherhood and what many see as the revival of the Mubarak regime," said Sami.
On Tuesday (Jun. 5), more than 100,000 demonstrators of all political stripes — including the Brotherhood — hit the square to voice two main demands: A retrial for Mubarak and his fellow defendants, and the application of a "political disenfranchisement law." The law, which would bar Mubarak-era officials from holding high positions of state, was ratified by parliament in April and currently awaits the approval of Egypt's Supreme Constitutional Court.
Hossam Eissa, a law professor at Cairo's Ain Shams University and a prominent leftist personality, told IPS that application of the disenfranchisement law "would mean conducting the presidential elections again from scratch."
Many of the Tahrir Square protesters are also demanding the formation of "civil presidential council" consisting of the Brotherhood's Morsi and eliminated presidential candidates Hamdeen Sabbahi (nationalist-leftist) and Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh (moderate Islamist). The latter two men came in third and fourth place respectively in last month's first-round presidential vote.
The proposed council " which largely aims to sideline Shafiq — would be mandated with governing the country until a new constitution is drafted and fresh elections held. While the idea has met with support from liberal and leftist quarters, it was quickly rejected by the Muslim Brotherhood.
If political forces want to see Shafiq defeated, the Brotherhood asserts, they should unite behind the Brotherhood's candidate in this month's runoff.
According to Sami, proposals for an unelected presidential council "aren't realistic," since such a council would lack constitutionality.
"What's more, neither parliament nor Egypt's ruling military council has the authority to create such a body," Sami explained. "It's more realistic to push for the application of the political disenfranchisement law, which would see Shafiq barred from contesting the presidency and force fresh elections."
While leftist and liberal parties and groups voice deep misgivings about the Brotherhood, both sides are united in their rejection of Shafiq, who is widely seen as a symbol of the ousted Mubarak regime.
"Tuesday's demonstration sent a powerful message to Mubarak regime holdovers that the Egyptian people reject a return to the autocracy and corruption of the past," Mahmoud al-Khodeiry, head of parliament's legislative affairs committee, told IPS from Tahrir Square.
Maher, for his part, warned that the controversial court verdicts had proven that "remnants of the Mubarak regime remain deeply entrenched throughout all echelons of the state." That being the case, he went on to describe last year's Tahrir Square uprising as "only round-one of Egypt's ongoing revolution.