In Ferguson and in Cairo, court verdicts have been divisive, polarising and dividing.
Court verdicts are meant to be agreed with and not agreed with, accepted and not accepted. That’s because there is a winner and a loser in every court case. At times the defence wins; at times the prosecution is victor. It could go either way.
Not all are happy with court pronunciations. Sometimes we go back home dragging our feet, muttering how life is so unjust, so unfair. We sometimes do not return home but choose instead to make our protest public, like on the streets, and in the extreme, we can let loose our emotions and turn violent.
It happens everywhere, including Ferguson, Missouri.
When Darren Wilson, the police officer who fatally shot unarmed teenager Michael Brown, was not indicted by a grand jury for the killing of the 18-year-old, the announcement triggered a round of violent demonstrations worse than when Brown was killed in August.
The same violence erupted in Egypt on Saturday when the charges against former president Hosni Mubarak for killing protesters when the January Revolution broke out, was thrown out. About 2,000 people massed in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the birthplace of the 2011 revolution and where at least one person was reported killed in the clashes.
Nobody wants to see Mubarak found innocent of murder if he indeed murdered or helped in some way. But the truth is that many leaders, in the West included, do get away with murder, if not literally than at least figuratively.
How many millions of people on both side of the Atlantic opposed the US and British invasion of Iraq? There were no WMD and Saddam was not the madman bent on destroying the Free World that Bush and Blair tried to paint. Nor did these millions believe US troops were deployed to Iraq in hot pursuit of Al-Qaeda because there was no Al-Qaeda in Iraq (although it’s there now, thanks to the security vacuum the occupation created).
Did it matter to Bush or Blair? They did not go to jail for invading Iraq. They did not stand trial for war crimes. They were not prosecuted for the hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians who perished.
Following the invasion, Bush and Blair were, in fact, re-elected.
And now they’re busy writing memoirs and doing the rounds of universities as guest speakers, all for a handsome fee.
Much of the ire of people opposing the Mubarak verdict is being directed at the government. But why blame the judges and Egypt’s entire judicial system on the government? Egypt’s judicial system is an independent branch of the government, not collaborating with it.
When Wilson was found not guilty, nobody inferred that Obama, a black man, should have intervened because a white policeman got away with the shooting death of a black citizen.
People must have faith in their judiciary because if they don’t, law and order breaks down and nation states become failed states. Without such trust, there will always be a gulf that breeds suspicion and mistrust, a gulf that undermines the very legitimacy of a system of justice.
Egypt was among the first countries in the world after France to establish a judicial institution, beginning in 1875. It has a history and a reputation which it would not want to be tainted or besmirched, especially in such a high-profile case as Mubarak, being tried in what was constantly dubbed The Trial of the Century. Every time Mubarak appeared in court, from his first appearance on 3 August 2011, it was front page news the world over and the first broadcast item from BBC to CNN. No Egyptian judge would want to wilfully put his entire professional career on the line and the standing of Egypt’s entire judiciary system with the eyes of the world watching every move and listening to every word.
Judge Mahmoud Al-Rashidi (Egypt does not employ the American jury system. It’s just the judge and two aides, like in Europe, particularly France) said he did his best and asked for forgiveness if he was found in error. “If what I’m saying is not accurate, it’s because we are in the end only human. And if what I’m saying is perfect, that’s because of God.”
Despite the endless raft of charges, Al-Rashidi said criminal charges should never have been brought against Mubarak. There was weaknesses in how these charges were filed and the evidence provided to back them up.
He said that one day the public will be able to sift through the 1,340-page explanation of the case. Scholars, researchers, thesis students, high schoolers, anybody in fact who would like to know how the judiciary reached its conclusion would be able to do so.
After all the evidence that was privy is made public, who knows? People might come to the same conclusion the judge did.
Maybe Mubarak ordered the shooting of protesters, and maybe he didn’t. Few people, if anybody, can swear that Mubarak ordered the police to shoot the protesters on sight. Only those very, very close to him (and maybe not even those) can say with any authority what went on behind the immaculate walls of the presidential palace on that Friday of 28 January when hundreds of the protesters were killed.
The Trial of the Century might have meant to some that Mubarak would be found guilty no matter what. The trial is so huge, they argue, that it would be impossible that he comes out innocent, as if nothing happened.
But the law does not pander to media ballyhoo which surrounds high-profile trials. Either there is evidence or there isn’t. It would be a dark day in Egypt if people wanted Mubarak convicted, baying for his blood, even if the evidence pointed the other way.
As much as Mubarak’s opponents would like to believe, he was not being tried in the court of public opinion. He was being tried in a court of law. And the court found him innocent.
But just because Mubarak was found innocent doesn’t mean the revolution failed or that it should never have started. Its main demands – bread, social justice and freedom – were legitimate and remain so almost four years later, and will remain so.
It’s being said that Mubarak’s not guilty verdict brought the revolution full circle – from a president who was ousted, to jail and facing a possible life imprisonment or worse, to a man who has gone scot-free.
But one of the key demands of the revolution was for Mubarak to step down, and so he did. If the January nationwide uprising did nothing else, to bring down an autocratic regime in power for 30 years was achievement enough.
Yet the revolution did not stop after Mubarak was forced to step down, nor should it stop because Mubarak was acquitted. Corruption of all kinds, heredity accession to power, police brutality, high unemployment, low wages, skyrocketing cost of living, dilapidated housing, poor medical services, broken down education – the list is long and the demands for redress is loud.
Mubarak’s verdict should not make people ashamed that they poured out onto the streets in the millions demanding his downfall. His exoneration should not make people regret that they pushed him out.
In Ferguson, as police and protesters clashed, a contentious national debate on race and law enforcement reopened, with many people complaining that white police unfairly target black males.
In Egypt, the Mubarak trial, even after he was cleared, should be a time to remember what and who put him in the dock in the first place. Egyptians did, and two years later they revolted against another authoritarian sitting president, the Islamist Mohamed Morsi.
Egyptians said in their millions that no leader shall ever again rule with impunity, without accountability and without consequences.
These were some of the biggest achievements of Egypt’s revolutions, never to be forgotten, never to be whitewashed.
Alaa Abdel-Ghani is an affiliate professor, Faculty of Journalism, American University in Cairo.