Egypt after Mubarak: finding truth in transition

The prosecution of a scattering of old regime stooges is not enough to guarantee Egypt escapes the grip of corruption and cronyism. Egypt needs to draw on lessons from across the continent of Africa and beyond for examples of transitional justice, and may need its very own Truth and Reconciliation Commission, argues Marc Michael. This article is published in conjunction with History & Policy.

Marc Michael
22 February 2011

As the angry slogans, joyous roars and festive dances of Tahrir square give way to the possible birth of a civilian, liberal representational democracy, Egypt enters a transitional moment underlain by massive uncertainty and rapidly shifting political allegiances. Responding to a sudden outburst of collective thirst for truth, public figures pour their hearts out on talk shows, newspapers and courtrooms, in a convoluted quest to protect each other after the disappearance of their revered president. 

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has now dissolved both chambers of Parliament, fired most high ranking security officers in the ministry of interior, initiated trials against notorious allies of the old regime, and promised to draft a new constitution as well as hold elections in the coming months. This transitional moment poses some questions as to the implementation of justice. Why would only Ahmad Ezz, the steel magnate, be tried on grounds of corruption and not the hundreds of businessmen who were close to Hosni’s son, Gamal Mubarak? Why would only Habib El-Adly, former minister of interior, be tried for the bombing of the Church of Saints in Alexandria, and not the clique of ministers and subordinates involved in the massacre - as his recent hearing in martial court revealed?

These examples highlight the evidently arbitrary nature of justice during a transitional moment between two political systems. The individuals who will be tried will serve as scapegoats to obscure the systematic corruption embedded in the power mechanics of the old regime - mechanics that aimed to eliminate the possibility of an alternative and were based on the twin pillars of the silencing of political expression and the petty criminalization of all classes of the population. 

The former pillar entailed not only state repression - symbolized by State Security Investigations Service (SSIS) (Gihaz Mabahith Amn al-Dawla) - of oppositional individuals or movements, in conjunction with the constant creation of a dummy scarecrow opposition, but also the more perverse socially enforced hushing of personal political opinions - leading to mass political illiteracy.  The latter pillar implicated the majority of the population, across class divides, into various forms of normalized criminal activities, such as the receipt or payment of bribes to make ends meet due to wanting minimum-wages or to expedite endless bureaucratic procedures, to the violent, mafia-style actions of members of the security apparatus, via the spread of Russian-style oligarchic patron-client relations in 'big business’.

In this context, rumours will continue concerning the exact roles of various actors in the underdevelopment of the nation, and endless debates about criminal responsibility will proliferate to an extent that could mask more pressing political, economic and social issues in dire need of reform. These trends have already emerged, and will constitute the perfect environment for the reproduction of the old regime, and the continuation of the same under the guise of the new. 

A deeper appreciation of history can help avoid such a quagmire in two ways. First, recasting the ‘Lotus Revolution’ in a broader historical frame reveals that currently evolving transitional dynamics have already played an important role in the perpetuation of a peculiar governance system in Egyptian history - the 'politics of the belly', in Jean-Francois Bayart’s terms - throughout the 1952, 1970 and 1981 takeovers by Presidents Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak, respectively. While Nasser’s socialist policies of redistribution and workers' rights avoided the pitfall of generating widespread petty corruption, his authoritarian military style relied greatly on state and social repression of political opinion. Sadat’s shift towards the American Axis, and Mubarak’s later embrace of neo-liberal policies, as well as his continued commitment to a police-backed gubernatorial style, ensured that the conditions for the corruptibility of most social actors would come to constitute the dominant institutional framework of social-political interactions over the 'longue durée.'

Second, while an extensive historical literature on transitional justice exists, it is traditionally only considered relevant to societies emerging from brutal civil conflict–the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa and the genocide in Rwanda serving as the two most famous examples. Typical debates on South Africa frame the main issue as one of truth vs. justice, where provision of amnesty to criminals from an older regime guarantees the truth of their confessions at the price of their legal punishment. The Rwandan experience underscores themes of politics, scarcity and justice: when half of the population has been involved in the killing of the other half, the winners simply can not afford to put the losing parties in jail, for fear of national economic and social collapse as well as insufficient resources for full prosecution. 

Although, considering the precedents in the field of transitional justice, the Egyptian context wouldn’t warrant the creation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), the widespread corruption that has been one of the central pillars of recent regimes should be addressed seriously and extensively if any real change is expected of the Lotus Revolution. Revealing the mechanics of the regime’s daily operations in a publicly accessible format will provide a more lucid consensual basis for decisions on reforming state policies and redrafting the constitution, as well as focus discussions away from political gossip and ad hoc finger-pointing. 

Beyond the socially cathartic value of 'truth' typically articulated by proponents of transitional justice, a TRC based on a modified South African model should be seen as an acceptable political compromise allowing the 'dirty-handed' to participate in the rebuilding of their nation rather than undermining reform for the sake of their personal safety or privileges. Under this model, blanket amnesty, and the ability to retain a portion of wealth obtained under dubious circumstances, would be offered in return for evidence-backed confessions made before a set deadline. If the previous regimes were bent on obliterating any imaginable alternatives to themselves, it is the task of Egyptians today to draw on historical analysis, mustering all available social resources, to overcome obstacles to potential democratic outcomes. A TRC would be a first step in that direction.

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