Foreign Policy Blogs

The Mubarak Retrial: Winners and Losers


On Nov. 29, an Egyptian court cleared charges against the country’s former president Hosni Mubarak, who ruled Egypt from 1981 to 2011, when he stepped down in the face of massive protests and the loss of his security services’ confidence.

The corruption charges against him were overturned; charges of complicity in the deaths of protestors were written off as a technicality on the grounds of a “technicality.” Taken together, the court ruling means the state can no longer detain him.

Two thousand people went out to protest in Tahrir Square over the weekend but were quickly dispersed, while pro-government demonstrators claimed victory over the “January 25 Conspiracy.” Egypt’s state-owned media, which had been embracing anti-foreign, pro-military memes with alacrity since 2013, wondered (at the direction of senior officials) in the post-trial headlines who can be held culpable in protestors’ deaths, implying it won’t be the security services or Mubarak and his inner circle. President (formerly General) Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s post-trial speech vowing further “democratic” progress all but dripped with such assurance.

It is worth noting at this time who benefits the most (or least) from the precedents it sets and the trends it reinforces:

  • The armed forces: Considering how complicit the officer class had been in the (mis)management of Egypt’s economy and politics before 2011, this ruling can only help them sleep better at night now. Significant reforms chasing after their properties and privileges are dead in the water, especially because they now have more leverage over their erstwhile civilian partners: Mubarak’s relatives, hangers-on and oligarchs. They will not have to pay a price for stage-managing their former master’s departure and increasing the militarization of Egyptian society.
  • Mubarak family: As noted above, they’re decidedly the junior partner now with the armed forces, but their patriarch’s humiliation has been partly redressed and there is a place for them at the table. If only the country’s former spychief Omar Suleiman had lived to see the day as well.
  • Sinai-based insurgents: In the short-term, the government will be more embolden to move against the terrorist and criminal elements in the peninsula. This will damage these groups. But, at the same time, these moves are hardly going to win the army and police friends. A massive home demolition program is being carried out to ‘sanitize’ the Rafah border crossing with Gaza.
  • GCC: Unlike Qatar’s venture, the Saudi and Emirati investments in the anti-Islamist campaign have paid for themselves. They have helped roll back the Arab Spring, though these governments give themselves far too much credit for something Egyptian actors did mostly by themselves. Significantly, the Bahraini king has already phoned the former president to congratulate him on (almost definitely) winning his freedom from custody.
  • Government of Israel: Since the 1980s, Israeli officials have been most comfortable dealing with the security services since they share the same general interests with respect to “managing” the Palestinian question. The public mourning of the Israeli Cabinet over Mubarak’s ouster was unseemly enough, so there will not be much comment on it this time to avoid another PR fiasco. Ironically, though, such comment would be quite welcome among some Egyptian circles because of their disgust with the whole “Arab Spring” and jumping on to anti-Palestinian incitement in response to the Sinai violence.
  • Gaza: The Mubarak government’s hostility to Hamas has only been surpassed by the current administration’s actions and the anti-Palestinian venom of the mass media. The growing insurgency in the Sinai means even less tolerance for Hamas and, especially, other factions who do not listen to Hamas. The money-minded smuggling interests on both sides of the border will continue to enjoy official protection, of course. Those will who suffer the most are as always the people without connections or havens abroad to flee to from crippling poverty or the Egyptian and Israel military blockades.
  • The Muslim Brotherhood: Even though this action will lend the Brothers’ criticisms of the government greater credence, their own unpopularity is not reversible in the short run. And unlike the Sinai militants, they have aspirations which will be harmed should they resort to low-level violence. Rumors that they will soon declare a self-imposed ban on political activity are surely false, but they have few options except to go back underground, to an extent not seen in decades.
  • Independent news media: The groveling and lies Egypt’s press will be expected to practice in describing the “innocence” of Mubarak as a result of the verdict, or face censorship and worse, is not an appealing prospect. Even for the state-owned outlets who have tarnished their reputations by participating in the glorification of the old order.
  • NGOs that take foreign funding: They will be further punished for daring to promote democracy, however constrained, in the period following Jan. 25. Don’t expect their home governments to do much of anything, though. The indignity of the trials that saw the son of an American cabinet official driven from the country didn’t cause any serious troubles for the Morsi administration. New NGO financing laws will restrict their activities even further, whipped up by the nationalist media and the courts.
  • “Tamarod” organizers: It has already outlived its usefulness for the security services. The Brotherhood, in the generals’ estimate, was foolish enough to let these people fester and mobilize behind closed doors and in the open. Sisi will not make that mistake; he won’t allow such an association to come into being against him because he knows full well what it is capable of doing. In the increasingly intolerant political climate, those activists who did sincerely believe they were supporting a democratic “reset” with the movement are learning just how dispensable they are with the restoration of the “deep state.”
  • Qatar: This is just another nail in the coffin for the previous emir’s foreign policy, which Doha is now trying to back away from to improve regional ties. Even Al Jazeera’s Egypt service, once such a powerful voice in local politics, is a ghost of its former self. The trial verdict does not particularly affect any of this, it just serves as a reminder of a bad bet.
  • The Obama administration: President Obama’ Cairo declaration seems even more distant now than it did last year, when the U.S. refused to call the removal of Morsi a coup lest it have to suspend aid. And the U.S.’s influence will continue decline because of inconsistency. If you never use your leverage to affect an outcome, can you even be said to even posses leverage? Sisi, with Israel and most of the Gulf monarchies’ diplomatic and tacit military-intelligence support, really does not need to be very humble in his dealings with Washington.
  • Egypt’s “Deep State”: Generals and tycoons have deferred reform at great cost to the Egyptian public yet again. This pleases the country’s uncivil society — bureaucrats, officers, and their dependents — and well-to-do “liberals” who believe that any Islamist alternatives, but really offers nothing to the rural and urban poor. When you systematically destroy all alternatives to violence targeting the state, you leave people with violence. The ways they have had to defend their interests since 2011 speak less of enduring foundations than increasingly desperate isolation.