Mubarak in court: Is Meles next?

By Eskinder Nega / August 05, 2011
Thirty years in the limelight and yet Mubarak seldom smiled. Arab leaders rarely do. Perhaps it’s the 600 years under the Ottomans. But the last time he appeared on television, February 10, 2011, there was more than the customary solemnity. The sneer was manifestly apparent. This was after all a veteran soldier speaking, a decorated hero of the 1974 Israeli-Arab war which had restored Egypt’s confidence and dignity, and he was impatient to tell the world that succumbing to the demands of an unruly mob was the last thing on his mind.

“I will not resign,” he finally said, defiantly stressing each word to maximize impact.

Egypt was literally outraged. The rest of the world held its breath. And the impossible happened next: he was ousted in less than 24 hours!

Six months later, he was back on the airwaves, his image and words transmitted live to a world-wide audience.

“Yes, I am here. I deny all the accusations wholly,” rang out 83-year-old Hosni Mubarak’s still surprisingly deep and strong voice.

But he was clearly not the man he was on February 10, 2011. He was speaking from one of Egypt’s infamous prisoners’ cages, laying helplessly in bed, accused of murder and plunder. The hair was still the dyed jet-black it had always been, but the facial expression had changed noticeably. A ghostly hollowness in the eyes dominated the face. The only movement was around the lips, involuntarily.

The world was not supposed to see him like this. Ostensibly running Egypt are men all appointed to their exalted positions by Mubarak. To their credit, they hadn’t forgotten. While the whole world spoke of his overthrow, of a people’s revolution, they were loyally adamant that he had “voluntarily stepped aside in the interest of the nation.”

Fuming young revolutionaries, however, thought otherwise. “We took him down in plain view of the whole world,” they protested. Along the way, more than 800 unarmed and peaceful protesters died. He must see his day in court of law, they demanded passionately.

The setting was complete for a battle of wills. And more than the pace of reforms was at stake in the outcome. The very soul of the revolution was on the line.

Which side prevailed was apparent when ethereal Mubarak was briskly wheeled into a mostly empty court room in a hospital bed. Victory has gone to the revolutionaries. Though it’s too early to write off the military entirely, by losing the blinking contest they have lost the initiative. They are now less likely to dictate the pace of change.

Will the wretched sight of Mubarak behind a prisoners’ cage impel dictators to cling to power at all costs? Have Assad in Syria, Saleh in Yemen and Meles in Ethiopia now lost what incentive there was to negotiate? Will the fate of Mubarak inadvertently become an antidote to peaceful transition?

More than 800 people should not have died in mere eighteen days. Most were shot wantonly by sharp-shooters to spread terror. Some were recklessly knifed by ruling party thugs. Many more were seriously injured by an overzealous police. More than 100 people were either being killed or injured every day during those three weeks. But the vast majority of protesters were unarmed and peaceful. There was coldhearted calculation to the killings. This was more than a state reacting to restore law and order. There was clear motive behind the killings.

There is a fine line between murder and casualty that must not be crossed. Mubarak had callously crossed that line. He is now paying for it. Had he left office earlier, before killing gratuitously, he would most probably not be where he is today. His friends would have been able to help. His last minute behavior, more than the entirety of his record, is what has compelled the trial.

Saleh and Meles could and should learn from Mubarak. After bombarding Hama with tanks, however, it looks like its too late for Syria’s Assad. He will have to account for his actions, sooner or later. His friends and well-wishers, even those in Iran, would now be really hard pressed to help him. Saleh, too, would have been beyond the pale by now had it not been for the obvious threat posed by Islamic fundamentalists in Yemen, some with ties to Al-Qaeda. But hopefully Saleh is aware that he lives in the age of satellite television. A single image could sway world-wide public opinion against him. And no one will then be able to buttress his regime or help him personally, as the Saudis have been doing ever since the implosion of the crisis. Every step Saleh takes is laden with multiple risks and dangers. The earlier he leaves the better for all: himself, his country and the region.

Meles Zenawi of course has yet to face a crisis. But he will. An African Spring, with Ethiopia, Africa’s largest dictatorship, as its epicenter, is unavoidable. And he knows it. But his reaction stands in sharp contrast to the Moroccans. While the Moroccan regime, soberly mindful of what had happened in Tunisia and Egypt, has voluntarily instituted democratic reforms to preempt a mass uprising, Meles has chosen to dramatically increase police presence on the streets. There is no talk of democratic reforms. All signs are that he intends to make a stand. Now rather than later is the best time for friends to caution him otherwise.

Meles must not draw the wrong lessons from Mubarak’s plight. Mubarak’s last minute behavior, not his track record, determined what happened to him after his ouster. The same most probably holds true for Meles Zenawi.

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The writer, prominent Ethiopian journalist Eskinder Nega, has been in and out of prison several times while he was editor of some of the newspapers shut down during the 2005 post-electioncrackdown. After nearly six years of tug-of-war with the 'system,' Eskinder, his award-winning wife Serkalem Fassil, and other colleagues have yet to win government permission to return to their jobs in the publishing industry. Email: