When it comes to delivering justice, authorities should not underestimate the Egyptian public. Responses to the Hosni Mubarak trial verdicts demonstrate that people’s understanding of what constitutes justice is varied, nuanced and sophisticated. Of course, Egyptians want to see guilty verdicts for those who abused power over the past 30 years, violently attacked peaceful protesters or lined their pockets with public money. But if accountability is not achieved through trials that meet reasonable legal standards and expose deeper truths about the past, many Egyptians will remain unsatisfied.
Findings from a survey conducted between November 2011 and March 2012 underscore these points. It asked a broad cross-section of 169 Egyptians about their views on a range of issues relating to justice and accountability in post-Mubarak Egypt. This survey was not random or sizeable enough to conclusively prove how the population at large is thinking. But its findings suggest that Egyptians’ perceptions of the trials following the January 25 revolution are complex and their standards of justice are high.
What can we learn from the survey? For starters, it revealed respondents are intently following the civil court trials — not just that of Hosni Mubarak and his sons, but those of other alleged wrongdoers. Most respondents agreed that the right people are on trial or in prison, and the trials are playing a positive role in removing them from important positions. Respondents added, however, that other wrongdoers remain free and even continue working at their old jobs.
Are the trials helping expose how the system worked under Mubarak? Respondents generally thought they are. Most viewed the trials as having a chilling effect on regime leaders and business oligarchs who might be tempted to break the law.
But are the trials helping deter major human rights abuses? On this question, respondents expressed more skepticism.
Authorities should take note that Egyptians care deeply about accountability for human rights abuses. When asked what kinds of trials matter most, respondents prioritized trials addressing human rights abuses. They gave lower priority to trials designed to recover stolen public assets or compensate victims.
This finding dovetails with another from the survey: Security-sector reform is top-ranked by respondents out of 11 possible reform options. Clearly Egyptians would like to see reform of state institutions, particularly police and intelligence agencies, widely perceived as responsible for committing massive human rights abuses.
Judicial independence and trials of alleged wrongdoers closely followed in the survey rankings. Support for judicial independence echoes a similar finding from a May 2012 Pew Research Center poll. In it, Egyptians ranked a “fair judiciary” their second highest priority, after “improved economic conditions.”
How do our survey findings relate to Egyptians’ mixed reactions — ranging from joy to rage — to the Mubarak trial verdicts this past weekend? Two points are essential. The first gets to the integrity of the investigations on which trials are based, while the second concerns the charges leveled against defendants by prosecutors.
On the first point, judges in the Mubarak trial indicated they could not rule that Hosni Mubarak or Habib al-Adly, his former interior minister, ordered attacks on peaceful protesters. Instead, they gave them life sentences as accessories to murder for not preventing the attacks. In his closing statement, the prosecutor pointed to security officials’ refusal to cooperate as a factor undermining his case. This echoes the point made by one survey respondent, who observed, “Why should the police protect and investigate crime scenes when their own members are among the suspected perpetrators?”
Clearly, forensic investigations are key to successful prosecutions. Many survey respondents expressed skepticism that trials in post-Mubarak Egypt are effectively investigating alleged wrongdoers — a finding confirmed by the Mubarak trial verdicts. Digging deeper, survey respondents pointed both to a lack of forensic investigative capacity and to insufficient independence of the authorities tasked with this responsibility.
Lawyers in Egypt and abroad now predict that the “accessory to murder” verdict will be overturned because it falls short of standards required by Egyptian and international law. Some Egyptians argue that the suspect legal reasoning is evidence that the judges were motivated by political expediency and confirm the judiciary is far from independent. “Not guilty” verdicts for other security officials — charged in the same trial with orchestrating attacks on peaceful demonstrators or allowing damage to public and private property — only strengthens this belief.
A second point is crucial: Survey respondents, like many reacting to the Mubarak trial verdicts, were concerned about the limited scope of the charges brought in the trials, which mostly focus on events occurring during the 18-day uprising. Many found them ludicrous in relation to 30 years of abusive power exercised by the Mubarak regime. Judge Ahmed Refaat, who presided over the Mubarak trial, alluded to this issue in his opening remarks when he described the progressive decline of a country once viewed as a beacon of progress.
Regarding the charges, Egyptians are speculating why the judges allowed the trial to proceed against the Mubarak sons, Gamal and Alaa. They, along with their father, were accused of buying underpriced villas in Sharm el-Sheikh from businessman Hussein Salem in exchange for Salem’s access to below-market land concessions in that town. The court dismissed these charges against all four because the statute of limitations — the maximum time for legal proceedings to be initiated — had run out. Is it any wonder that Egyptians might conclude that such a simple mistake is proof of the incompetence of judicial authorities, if not their bad intentions? Meanwhile, the Mubarak sons remain in custody as they face new charges of insider trading relating to shares of Al-Watany Bank.
Do gender, age and social class affect perceptions of the public value of the trials? We discovered they do: In findings that are statistically significant (defined here as the possibility that they occurred by accident as less than one chance in 10,000), women and young people under the age of 40 participating in the survey are much more skeptical than men and those age 50 and above. Moreover, working-class respondents view the trials as having more value than middle-class ones. Explaining why requires more research. Possibly, many working class respondents are happy simply to see high public officials and violent police officers in the dock — something they never thought possible before the revolution.
Interestingly, perception of the trials’ positive public value eroded over our five-month survey, as courts delayed verdicts and, in many cases, police were found innocent of killing protesters. In the survey, respondents did not strongly support the statement that the trials of regime figures are satisfying the public’s desire for justice or helping heal Egypt and promote reconciliation.
As we digest the verdicts of the Mubarak trial, it is clear that meeting Egyptians’ expectations for justice and accountability will not be easy. Public confidence in trials will depend on who is held accountable and for what, and how competently the cases are prosecuted. Justice may be blind, but Egyptians know it when they see it.
Judy Barsalou is a visiting scholar at the American University in Cairo.