Protests in Egypt

"Down with all Mubaraks!"

A court decision to drop all charges against Egypt's former President Hosni Mubarak in connection with the deaths of more than 800 demonstrators prompted protests and riots in Cairo and other cities in Egypt. Karim El-Gawhary reports from Cairo's Tahrir Square

A young demonstrator near Tahrir Square holds up a placard that reads: "If Mubarak is innocent, who's responsible for the death of the demonstrators?" as numerous motorists sound their horns in agreement. Just a few hours earlier, a court in Cairo dismissed charges against the nation's former dictator, who had been accused of sharing responsibility for the killing of hundreds of demonstrators during the anti-Mubarak uprising in early 2011.

His interior minister, Habib El-Adli, and six other former high-ranking security officials were even acquitted of the same charges. As part of the same trial, the court also cleared Mubarak and his sons of all corruption charges.

Scandalous acquittal

It was above all the dropping of charges against Mubarak and the acquittal of his interior minister and his security chiefs that drove Egyptians onto the streets to protest. Many people, especially the relatives of those demonstrators who lost their lives, view the dismissal of charges against of the former long-term dictator as a total whitewash of the old regime by the judiciary.

This is the tip of the iceberg. A short time previously, 170 police officers accused of involvement in the killing of demonstrators were acquitted either due to a lack of admissible evidence or because the officers in question were deemed to have acted in self-defence. A few of the defendants were given suspended sentences.

Following the verdict, a young man who had been holding a white shroud in his hand in memory of his brother, who was killed in the anti-Mubarak rebellion, broke down outside the court building. Before the announcement, he had confidently declared: "My brother will receive justice." But when the court issued its verdict, he threw himself on the ground, screaming. "Today my brother has been murdered a second time!" he shouted, beside himself with grief and rage, writhing on the asphalt alongside the shroud.

An anti-Hosni Mubarak protester reacts on the outskirts of Cairo after hearing the outcome of the trial of Hosni Mubarak, Saturday, 29 November 2014 (photo: picture-alliance/AP Photo/Ahmed Abd El-Latif, El Shorouk Newspaper)
An anti-Hosni Mubarak protester reacts on the outskirts of Cairo after hearing the outcome of Hosni Mubarak's trial, Saturday, 29 November 2014. The court dismissed murder charges against Mubarak in connection with the killing of protesters in the 2011 uprising that ended his nearly three-decade reign

The late triumph of the Pharaoh

The question now is whether Mubarak will soon be a free man again. He still has to serve a three-year sentence in a separate corruption case. The sentence was handed down in May of this year, but Mubarak has been in detention since May 2011, spending most of this time not in prison, but in hospital. The question is now whether this period will be taken into consideration. If it is, then Mubarak's time as a prisoner serving his sentence for corruption would have ended in May 2014.

Mubarak was not acquitted in the most important case, where he was charged with being an accessory to the murder of demonstrators during the rebellion. Here, the judge halted proceedings on a technicality. The trial examined who was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of protesters during the uprising against Mubarak in January and February 2011. Who issued the order to shoot at the time? What did the chain of command look like?

Initially, only the interior minister and his security chief were on trial. In response to public pressure, Mubarak had been brought to the dock when the trial was already two months underway. The judge deemed this to be a procedural error and therefore dropped the charges against Mubarak. For the judge, this was – from a legal point of view – the most elegant way of not having to issue a verdict on the culpability or innocence of Mubarak.

Possible retrial

It is almost certain that the case will now enter a final legal round. Public prosecutors will approach the Court of Cassation, which must decide whether any procedural errors did occur during the case. The Court of Cassation will not initially re-examine the body of evidence. It can either ratify the verdict – thereby closing the case against Mubarak – or opt for a retrial due to procedural errors. There would then be a final trial conducted by the Court of Cassation itself functioning as a criminal court.

The Egyptian human rights activist Hossam Bahgat regards the Court of Cassation as the "most independent and professional" chamber in the land, as the judges serving on it are exclusively appointed by their colleagues. Even though last weekend's verdict caused a furore in Egypt, it has not put an end to the "Mubarak court saga", which now looks set to enter an even more dramatic phase.

Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi (photo: Reuters/P. Wojazer)
After charges against Hosni Mubarak were dropped, Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi said that he accepted the outcome of the trial and declared that the country must now "look to the future" and "cannot go back"

After the 86-year-old Mubarak was taken back to hospital following the verdict, he appeared briefly at his balcony to wave to a small group of supporters. He later conducted a telephone interview with the host of pro-government television chat show, in which he again argued that he was not aware of having committed any offence.

Thereafter, photos of the more than 800 demonstrators killed during the uprising were circulated on Facebook and Twitter in Egypt "to jog Mubarak's memory". One tweet remarked cynically: "If no one is responsible for the deaths of the protesters, then they must have all committed suicide".

Proof of a stolen revolution

On the evening of Saturday, 29 November 2014, several thousand demonstrators gathered close to Tahrir Square, launching the largest demonstration since President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi took office and passed new laws curtailing the right to protest. Most of those taking part in the rallies on Tahrir Square were young people from a variety of political backgrounds.

"The verdict is further proof that they have stolen our revolution," exclaimed engineering student Mustafa in disgust. He was only willing to give his first name for fear of prosecution. His fellow student Ahmad concluded: "This isn't just about Mubarak, it's about 60 years of military rule! All those who gave their loyalty and respect to this regime are being rehabilitated," he said. Both demonstrators said that their anger over the verdict was now greater than their fear of the security forces, which is why they came to Tahrir Square.

The protesters' chants changed during the course of the protest. In the early stages, they denounced the dropping of charges against Mubarak and before long, they took aim at the new ruler and former army chief Abdul Fattah al-Sisi. "The people want to oust the regime!" they cried – an echo of the former uprising against Mubarak on the very same spot almost four years ago.

Demonstrators on Tahrir Square in Cairo holding up placards that read "down with military law" and "freedom for prisoners" (photo: MOHAMED EL-SHAHED/AFP/Getty Images)
Not all Egyptians are willing to heed their president's calls for the country to move on: demonstrators on Tahrir Square in Cairo holding up placards that read "down with military law" and "freedom for prisoners"

Use of force

It did not take long for the police to arrive and break up the demonstration with tear gas, water canons and shot. Dozens of protesters were arrested in side streets by groups of thugs and police in scenes reminiscent of the Mubarak era. The only difference being that now, the hired thugs weren't marauding through the streets with only machetes. This time they could also be seen on motorbikes with pillion passengers holding their rifles at the ready. Two demonstrators were killed in the clashes.

The protests continued on Sunday, 30 November 2014 at Cairo University, in Alexandria and also in several cities in the Nile Delta. The university protests are nothing new; they have been a routine occurrence in Egypt for months now. But since the verdict, the students appear to be combining their four-year protests against Mubarak with the nation's new ruler Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, with their slogan: "Down with all Mubaraks!"

Karim El-Gawhary

© 2014

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

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