Friday, June 1, 2012

Interviews with Egyptian Journalists #6: At Mubarak's Trial

Nearly a year ago, Ahmed received the assignment. He would be covering Mubarak’s trial, the ‘Trial of the Century’ as people were still calling it back then.  But because of the vast, complicated security clearances involved, he would be the only one from the agency able to enter the court. He would have to go to every session, with no back-up. If he got sick, the world would have one less set of eyes and ears in one of the most important events in Egyptian history. One day he arrived with a cold at 9am. The judge, not wanting to draw things out indefinitely, hoped to get as much done as quickly as possible, and kept trying to squeeze witnesses into the day. Ahmed got sicker and sicker, ‘near death’ as he put it, when the judge finally let everyone out at 10pm.

Around the world, people were expecting the Egyptian revolution’s success in toppling Mubarak to lead to a sort of Truth and Reconciliation trial. But from the second Ahmed entered the courtroom, he realized this was a false hope fed by the spectacle of the old dictator being wheeled in, seemingly helpless on his white hospital bed. The courtroom was filled with police for security, the same police accused of killing protesters on Mubarak’s orders. The public prosecutor was appointed by people appointed by people appointed by Mubarak. The judge was appointed by people appointed by Mubarak. The trial was held in the Police Academy, where a picture of one of the officers charged with murder still hung in the hallway leading to the courtroom. Until only a few months before, this entire Academy itself had been named after Mubarak.

And here they would try to prove that the decision to kill protesters had come from a chain beginning with Mubarak. There were over 400 plaintiffs. The Ministry of the Interior, whose former Minister Habib El Adly ranked as one of the most reviled of Mubarak’s appointees, would act as the investigator as well as the accused. Tossed into the same trial were Mubarak’s two sons. They would be tried on corruption charges. What did this have to do with the deaths of protesters? Everybody seemed to be asking, and then they stopped asking, because regardless of the answer, this is the way it would be. The regime would be trying itself in its own court.

Ahmed watched as Mubarak, with dyed hair and mafioso sunglasses, was wheeled in from the luxury hospital that was serving as his personal gilded prison. His lawyer, Farid El Deeb, casually smoked a cigar. Over five days, Ahmed watched as he puffed and declared that in fact a revolution had not taken place. The laws had not changed, after all. Hosni Mubarak was still technically the President of Egypt.

The revolution, El Deeb announced, had been created by ‘foreign elements’. These ‘elements’ had infiltrated the country by way of Sinai, aided by the local Bedouins. The security forces who shot and killed protesters from atop camels and horses on the tragic day of January 28th, 2011, had only been defending themselves against the Bedouin-aided foreign elements!

And corruption? Hardly. Mubarak’s fortune, El Deeb contended, never exceeded a million dollars. 

Ahmed was furious. This was the embodiment of what had gone wrong in Egypt. This was the perfect symbol of the mess Egypt had gotten itself into: a revolution without reform, a dictator being judged by the people he had groomed to be loyal.

So Ahmed began to write a feature article about the trial, and his lead would be the most farcical moment of the whole thing, when El Deeb had claimed that Mubarak was still the president. This is how the Egyptian tabloids had covered the story, with big letters splashed across the front page: “MUBARAK IS STILL THE PRESIDENT!”

But in order to defend this lead, it would take a lot of background, a lot of context. Right after El Deeb’s bombastic quote, Ahmed would have to spell out for an international audience with little to no prior information, in a few clear sentences, how the laws had not changed, how the people had not changed, how the trial had been perceived in Egypt, and how it had been perceived by Mubarak’s regime. He would have to explain the legal system, which allows for plaintiffs as well as public prosecutors, and then Egyptian expectations for the trial, and how they had been dashed.

He wrote it up this way, and took it to an editor, who said ‘I don’t get it.’ There was too much background too quickly. Too much explanation was needed, and by the time you got through it, the lawyer’s jab about Mubarak still being President would not have the same sting.

Then Ahmed remembered a man he met at the trial, the father of one of the young protesters shot by police. This man was horrified by the farce of the proceedings. His son’s death had not led to any real changes, like the revolution, a cathartic moment of violence invested with expectations that were then dashed. After a few sessions, he stopped showing up. Ahmed decided to lead with him instead: a father forced into disillusion, a nation’s aborted revolution told through one man’s grief for his murdered son.

Mubarak’s trial verdict is due tomorrow. 20,000 policemen and 160 tanks will be deployed to defend the courtroom.

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