When I heard that Egypt’s former president Hosni Mubarak had been released on Friday from the military hospital where he had been detained since his trial began a few months after the January 2011 revolution that ousted him, I looked up pictures from that trial. I wanted to remember the thrill, albeit short-lived, of seeing this incarnation of all the entitlement accrued over nearly 30 years of rule confined to the cage where defendants are kept in Egyptian courtrooms.
It is awful and humiliating to be in that cage. That is its intention.
So this was a sight that expressed Egypt’s revolutionary audacity. Mr. Mubarak was the first of the leaders overthrown by the uprisings that swept across this region to be present at his trial.
The very first leader to be toppled, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, fled on a plane to Saudi Arabia, which refused to extradite him for his civilian trial in 2011 and a military trial in 2012. That second trial ended with a conviction in absentia and a sentence of life in prison in connection with the killing of 23 demonstrators by the police during Tunisia’s revolution.
I will forever remember the day when Mr. Ben Ali ran away. That, too, was a moment of audacity: the realization that the people could overthrow a dictator in our region.
Some will tell you that Mr. Mubarak’s being in that cage was all a show scripted by a military government that would not ultimately permit the imprisonment of one of its own. (Mr. Mubarak was once the commander of the Air Force.) Some will tell you that it was unrealistic, even delusional, to have ever expected justice for those killed by Mr. Mubarak’s security forces during the revolution.
Surely, though, the whole point of revolution is to be unrealistic — since the reality, up until 2011, was that death was the only way we got rid of our dictators, either by natural causes or by assassination. In that context, the belief that people deserve freedom and justice appears a delusion.
For years, Mr. Mubarak created myriad branches of the security forces and appointed the judges. That ensured Egypt’s judicial system was configured to deny genuine justice. So, how could a regime try one of its own and find him guilty? I know: delusional.
How does such a regime try those who are not its own? The day before Mr. Mubarak walked free, a Cairo court again postponed issuing a verdict in the case of an Egyptian-American, Aya Hijazi, her Egyptian husband and several others who worked with them to provide services for street children. They have been imprisoned since May 2014 on absurd charges of human trafficking and sexual abuse. (The two-year limit for pretrial and provisional detention under Egyptian law has now been broken, apparently without consequence.)
Also in the days before Mr. Mubarak’s release, a petition was circulating on Egyptian social media calling for medical amnesty for a 22-year-old imprisoned student, Ahmed el-Khatib, who is suffering from an illness brought on by unsanitary prison conditions. He is one of an estimated 60,000 political prisoners in Egypt’s jails, many of whom are sick but are denied medical treatment. During his trial, Mr. Mubarak received the best medical care Egypt can offer in a military hospital.
To understand how our military rulers try those who are not their own, contrast the trial of Mr. Mubarak with our second ousted president, Mohamed Morsi, who was elected after Mr. Mubarak was forced out.
Millions of Egyptians took to the streets to demand Mr. Morsi’s resignation on the first anniversary of his taking office. Many Egyptians saw Mr. Morsi as preoccupied with consolidating power for the Muslim Brotherhood movement from which he came, rather than acting as the transitional president they elected him to be. After three days of mass protests, the head of the military, now the president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, overthrew the Morsi government.
I supported the overthrow of Mr. Mubarak. I also supported the millions of Egyptians who took to the streets against Mr. Morsi and I was glad to see him go. But I opposed Mr. Sisi’s seizure of power because I oppose military rule.
Like Mr. Mubarak, Mr. Morsi was put in a defendant’s cage, but he did not spend his nights in a cushy military hospital. Mr. Morsi and his senior advisers were held incommunicado by the military for several months before prosecutors began filing multiple charges, several of which resulted in his conviction. Held in a high-security prison near Alexandria, he is unlikely to walk free anytime soon.
As a Reuters correspondent in Cairo in the 1990s, I covered Mr. Mubarak’s presidency for several years. All the president’s news conferences would begin with the information minister giving out questions for reporters from the state-owned media to pitch as softballs to Mr. Mubarak. The minister would then call on those journalists to ensure the president was given a chance to provide the state-run outlets with his talking points.
Only by shouting out my questions would I finally catch his attention and get his answers. Mr. Mubarak used to call me the “troublemaker from Reuters.” His security detail once confiscated my press card because I did not stand, as the state-owned media representatives did, when the president entered a restaurant on the Sinai Peninsula where we were waiting for his news conference with the visiting Russian foreign minister.
“Tell Mona Eltahawy that next time the president arrives anywhere, she must stand up,” the presidential palace’s media office told my Reuters colleagues when they called to get my press card back. Repression can be predictable and pathetic.
I am angry and sad at Mr. Mubarak’s release not just because of what could have been, but what now cannot be, as long as our criminal justice system comforts the powerful and afflicts the powerless. If Mr. Mubarak was not held accountable for the killing of some 900 people in the 11 days of the uprising, how will we hold accountable Mr. Sisi and other senior security personnel accountable for another massacre, soon after they overthrew Mr. Morsi, of more than 800 people, most of whom were Muslim Brotherhood supporters, in a single day in 2013?
Egyptians of every political persuasion deserve justice. That must never be considered unrealistic. Rather, it is myopic and naïve to think that supporting our dictators, as so many Western administrations do, will make real the mirage of stability they claim to support. It must never be considered delusional to expect our human rights to be respected.
Five American administrations, Democratic and Republican, supported the Mubarak regime. As frustrated as I was with the Obama administration’s continuation of that support, through economic and military aid, and its foot-dragging at the start of our revolution, at least President Obama never invited Mr. Sisi to the White House.
Mr. Sisi was the first foreign leader to call Donald J. Trump after his election victory. I am sure Mr. Sisi is now celebrating his invitation to visit the White House next Monday.
I am not. I am not so delusional that I’d imagine the Trump administration will use that meeting to press Egypt’s president on matters of justice, freedom or human rights.
Mona Eltahawy became a contributing opinion writer for The International New York Times in the spring of 2015.